Posted: June 01, 2014

Rundles wrap up: Gluten, gluten, gluten

These days health benefits sell – a lot.

Jeff Rundles

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.

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

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Readers Respond

Gluten has found to be the culprit various conditions including Alzheimer’s, ADHD, & many other neurological disorders. My personal experience & reports from friends & family- Personally diagnosed with asthma-MD recommended inhalers & scripts---went off gluten & symptoms subsided. Grandson had chronic sinus that required use of Zyrtec-off of gluten symptoms left. Testimonial from a local neurologist who reported a patient that was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's-taken off all gluten & voila there was improved cognitive functioning. Documented case by Dr. Perlmutter ---young man here in CO who had neurological tremors;. off gluten & condition improved dramatically. As far as the comparison with marijuana, Pinot Grigio, ciabatta, 7-11 coffee, & vanilla ice cream – etc is at best to be mis-informed about gluten & the radical effects of the impact on the brain & body. By Sharon Shores on 2014 05 25
I learned 13 years ago, by accident that giving up gluten made a huge difference in my health. I was never tested for Celiac because it meant going back on gluten and having an invasive procedure, with the only treatment being told to give up gluten. More people are learning they feel better gluten-free, even though they may not be officially diagnosed as Celiac. It's not "silly" or just a fad for trendy, rich white women. I wish I didn't have to pay $7 for a semi-decent loaf of bread but I know I'll pay a higher price if I consume gluten. Most gluten-free people would prefer to be able to eat all the delicious products that contain gluten. I'm glad we have more choices now than we did 13 years ago. There's a reason this "fad" continues to grow and it hasn't happened overnight, but over time. I hope more gluten free options continue to be made available. By JG on 2014 05 15
The faddish quality to the phenomena is awesome as those who perhaps suffer migraines become aware of the issue and try that angle on reducing the debilitating issue. I am grateful that all I have to do is quit eating certain stuff and I feel great! I don't NEED to go spend lots of money on specialized products - but is sure is nice to have more options! Naysayers, people who think its a pretend issue - doubters and judgemental jerks who think everyone should be like them and not have that problem are the bigger problem. Kudos to those who don't criticize (to what end..I mean you are basically criticizing the entire marketing and capitalist system to say that fad targeting is some sort of annoyance!) At least this one helps many who actually do find relief from a variety of stuff. Signed, a rich white woman (well, rich enough to buy gluten free bread on occasion smile By GG on 2014 05 05
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