Is gluten-free the best thing since sliced bread?

by Eleanor Parkyn

If Mean Girls had been set in this decade, Regina wouldn’t have been on an ‘all-carb’ diet, but most likely a gluten-free one. Gluten-free diets are what are suggested as a treatment for individuals with Coeliac disease or an intolerance to gluten.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and some types of oats. There is a difference between being intolerant and having Coeliac; an autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gluten that makes it difficult to properly digest food.

Market Research Company Mintel reports that the gluten-free industry was worth over ten billion dollars in 2013, and is predicted to rise by over 50 per cent in 2016. However, a 2013 Packaged Facts survey discovered that only seven percent of the consumers of gluten-free products actually having an inability to process gluten, the remaining 93 per cent of the consumers are buying gluten free products as they believe them to be healthier and will aid them to lose weight.

Despite the lack of scientific research or any evidence to actually suggest that gluten-free diets are beneficial to the health of those who do not actually need it, 28 per cent of Americans are following a diet without gluten. Their main reasoning behind this is that we have not adapted to process gluten, which began to be incorporated into our diets 1200 years ago, when other evolved traits have been developed over millions of years. However, people have been drinking milk for roughly the same amount of time, and whilst some are lactose intolerant, many have developed to be able to enjoy milk without becoming deathly ill.

Others argue that we eat more gluten based products than previous generations, and this is the reason for the apparent rise in people being diagnosed with intolerances to gluten, however this is also not the case, as twice the amount of gluten was eaten during the late nineteenth century in America compared to the present day. It isn’t so much that more people are becoming intolerant to gluten, or developing an autoimmune disease, but rather that people are only recently becoming aware of such conditions.

After a period of bad health as a child, at the age of four it was suggested that I had Coeliac disease. Back then in the Nineties, Coeliac disease and gluten free diets were pretty much unheard of, with only one in 300 adults in the UK recognised to have the condition, but with two-thirds of those undiagnosed. It was safe to say that no one really understood what it meant to have Coeliac disease; at one point in my childhood I was forced to sit away from the other children, on a table by myself, in case they contaminated me with their gluten germs. Definitely not how it works.

It is no surprise that public knowledge was so limited, as due to the low number of diagnosed cases, studies into Coeliac disease were fairly small, usually only involving around thirty people. The outcome of all of these studies though, was the fact that a diet free of gluten is the key way of avoiding many of the symptoms associated with the disease; which include bloating, toilet troubles and constant tiredness. Buying food involved locating a specialist health food shop and spending a small fortune on the tiniest loaf of bread imaginable that had both the taste and texture of burnt rubber. But it had to be done; gluten damages the lining of the gut for those with Coeliac disease, preventing them from being able to digest and absorb food as we are meant to. For children, this can mean that they are unable to grow properly, and are often shorter than they would have been had they followed a gluten free diet. However if Coeliac disease is left untreated over a long period of time, much more serious health problems can present themselves than simply being a bit short. These include osteoporosis, bowel cancer, infertility problems and a higher risk of other autoimmune diseases.

Currently the number of people with Coeliac disease is around one in a 100, with many more suspected cases that are currently undiagnosed. The number of people with this disease has clearly increased within the past 20 years, and as such so has the range of gluten free food available. In recent years more and more ‘normal’ foods have become available as a gluten-free alterative. However much of these are freezer type foods such as pizza, chicken nuggets and fish fingers, or an assortment of cakes and biscuits. These products hardly scream out ‘healthy’, which is what has drawn over 28 per cent of all Americans to cut back or eliminate gluten from their diets. To combat this, manufacturers are producing gluten-free foods that are ‘healthier’ in a more general sense, by making the products also dairy-free and organic. While this may have some potential health benefits, and prove more environmentally beneficial, the prices of gluten-free food are continuing to increase (despite already being ridiculously high) based on the fad diet status that eating gluten-free has developed. This is a negative effect for those who actually have an inability to digest gluten, as they are forced to spend a lot more on products they need to ensure their survival due to the gluten-free ‘lifestyle’ being seen as a ‘healthy’ diet rather than a necessity to some. The US National Library of Medicine have revealed that gluten-free foods cost, on average, 242 per cent more than their gluten filled alternatives. Tesco for example, which provides one of the biggest ranges of gluten free food for a standard supermarket, charges £3.50 for a pack of six gluten-free tortilla wraps, but only 89 pence for eight regular tortilla wraps. Not only are gluten-free products more expensive, but are also always sold in far smaller portion sizes than similar non-gluten-free products. Shoppers are very much aware of this, with a survey run by Packaged Facts revealing that fifty-three percent of consumers considered gluten-free products to be ‘overpriced’. So why do people keep eating gluten-free food when they don’t need to?

The main myth that has led to such an increase in people eating gluten-free is that it is in some way healthy for us and will lead to weight loss. Of course, Gwyneth Paltrow was one of the first celebrities to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, and countless other celebs have followed suit. While they swear that a gluten-free diet has helped them lose weight, for those of us without the celebrity dieticians and personal trainers, a gluten-free diet may not be all that healthy. Because removing the gluten from foods makes it taste pretty awful, the gluten-free products are crammed with sugar and fat in an attempt to regain some semblance of tastiness; gluten-free products can contain as much as seventy percent starch. This makes the calorific values of gluten-free food almost twice as much as many normal versions of the foods. These products are also low in fibre, meaning that people become hungry much quicker and as a result will eat more. A study by the University of Chicago found that of those on a gluten-free diet, 81 per cent had gained weight within two years of beginning the diet, with over 40 per cent of those being overweight. As well as not being a valid weight loss diet, for those who are not intolerant, gluten is actually beneficial. It provides us with a wide variety of nutrients, lowers blood pressure and supports healthy bacteria in the digestive system. Eating gluten-free products seems like a way of justifying eating junk food by claiming it is healthy. If by eating gluten-free you mean only eating meat and vegetables, then yes, you will probably lose weight and feel healthier (if eaten in moderation), but if you are just using gluten-free substitutes for breads and cakes then it is certainly not the healthier or better choice.

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