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Rundles wrap up: Gluten, gluten, gluten

All you hear these days is “gluten, gluten, gluten.” I hear it and see it so often that it is ringing in my ears as if being spoken by The Swedish Chef from the Muppets in a Fake Scandinavian accent: “Gluten. Gluten. Gluten.”

And it all seems as silly as The Swedish Chef, really, in that it has gone way beyond a legitimate and serious disease (celiac) to a multi-billion-dollar fad based on spurious claims that a gluten-free diet offers an amazing array of health benefits, from curing ADHD, to preventing autism and diabetes, to fostering weight loss.

I have a family member who suffers from “gluten sensitivity,” although not diagnosed as full-blown celiac, so I am certainly not making fun of the condition. It took a while for her to figure out that gluten was at the heart of her ailments, and at the time is was very difficult to avoid gluten and even harder to find true gluten-free products, ingredients and restaurant menu alternatives.

And while I am grateful that her options have multiplied, and her overall health has greatly improved, I have to observe that the gluten-free explosion – and that is certainly what it is – is astonishing and borders on being snake-oil hawking.

Statistics indicate that only 1 percent of the population suffers from true celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder set off by the ingestion of gluten (although not caused by gluten) that can lead to very serious health problems. Another few percentage points of the population – some studies suggest 8 percent to 10 percent — have various levels of “gluten sensitivity” and suffer from such afflictions as nausea, aching joints and bones and migraine headaches. But it is also estimated that as much as 18 percent of the population (and growing) buys gluten-free products – bread, pancake mixes, flour, cookies, desserts, pasta, restaurant meals and more – and that in 2012 this gluten-free marketplace was estimated to be worth some $4.2 billion – and is expected to top $6.5 billion by 2017!   

Given the numbers, you can certainly see why companies are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon – even labeling long-standing and always gluten-free products as such to get in on the excitement.

Because of my personal involvement over a fairly long period of time, I have met many, many people who proclaim gluten sensitivity or those who have cut gluten out of their diets for many reasons. Curiously, however, they are all women; I have yet to meet a man who is following a gluten-free diet as the lead participant (some do in support of their female partners).

The gluten-free atmosphere is replete with arguments pro and con for the supposed health benefits of following a gluten-free diet, and the most incendiary is from the founder of a spurious movement called Science 2.0, Hank Campbell, who penned an article entitled “Celiac: The Trendy Disease for Rich White People.” This has come into the debate, I have discovered from people who follow the gluten-free movement, as “the trendy disease for rich white women.” My unscientific observation would seem to support that point of view.

I have no problem with people feeling better even if the net effect is more placebo than truly therapeutic. What is fascinating, however, is how huge marketplaces can spring up these days almost overnight when you link the product to health benefits.

I can’t help but think of another example that has happened in Colorado recently with marijuana. The public at large didn’t take marijuana seriously as a legitimate product until its proponents – who clearly had an end-game of complete recreational legalization –took the first step of selling it on the basis of health. Here again, a small percentage of those in actual therapeutic need swelled into a large demand audience and the floodgates (of money) opened.

I am right now planning a new movement: I have it on very good authority that Pinot Grigio, ciabatta, 7-11 coffee, and vanilla ice cream – taken every day – will make you thinner, smarter, more popular and extend your youth and life. Oh wait – that will just increase the prices.

Never mind.

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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