From the marketing muscle being applied to selling ‘gluten-free’ foods, you’d think gluten was the biggest nutritional culprit this side of saturated fat. Don’t believe everything you read.
Had a sandwich for lunch lately? Eaten a bowl of ice cream for dessert after dinner maybe? Or perhaps quaffed an adult beverage or two on a hot summer afternoon?
If so, you’ve been eating gluten, but if you believe all the born-again believers, diet gurus and opportunistic hucksters out there on line and on cable TV, a gluten-free diet could be the miracle that changes your life.
Indeed, the availability and prominence of “gluten-free” food products has multiplied exponentially over the past four or five years. Perhaps even more telling, gluten-free has now gotten lumped in with all the other “healthy” buzzwords.
For example, here’s an excerpt from Safeway’s nutrition advice for shoppers: “Look for the green SimpleNutrition tags that highlight nutrition benefits. These include Made with Whole Grains, Sodium Smart, Good Source of Fiber, Low in Fat, Organic, Natural and Gluten-Free.”
For the majority of consumers, natural and organic are good, and low in sodium, low in fat and high in fiber are just what the doctor ordered.
So now gluten-free benefits from the halo effect that all those "established good-for-you" label claims have garnered. As if we should all be cutting down on the salt, fat and gluten we consume if we want to get healthy and stay healthy — without making any significant lifestyle changes, of course, like exercising regularly or actively managing stress or even getting enough sleep every night.
Hey, all that stuff takes time and effort. I just want to pick up something from the grocery store that’s priced right, tastes good and makes me healthier without having to do anything. Except shovel in all those natural, organic, gluten-free food products.
Peasants prefer gluten
Let’s leave aside for the moment the epic irony in pushing gluten-free right alongside of “made with whole grains” — the single biggest source of dietary gluten, and ask the more pertinent question: Why has gluten-free seemingly come from nowhere to become a major marketing initiative?
After all, gluten is actually an important nutrient, a protein compound generously present in wheat (bread), barley (beer) and other grains. Its elasticity is the reason that adding yeast to dough allows it to rise and become bread-like. And for the no-meat-ever-again crowd, a product called seitan is marketed in all kinds of mock chicken, pork or beef dishes, often flavored with ginger and tamari in traditional Oriental cuisines.
Seitan is touted by a raft of veggie disciples, such as the holier-than-thou nutritionists at the Vegetarian Resource Group, as a “Staple food of vegetarian monks, Russian farmers and Asian peasants” a “wonderful substitute” for meat because it’s easy to flavor and has an excellent “chewy” texture. Personally, I’m eager to trade places with any of those folks.
How do they buck the “gluten-free” trend when they’re touting the wonders of eating pure, extracted gluten fashioned into mock sausage, fake fajitas and “not-dogs?”
Simple. Somewhere between 95% and 99.9% of the population has absolutely no problem with eating gluten, and thus obtains no benefit from purchasing more-expensive, gluten-free food products. Only people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that renders them incapable of digesting gluten proteins in their small intestines actually must go on a gluten-free diet. Even the prestigious Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that the total number of undiagnosed celiac disease sufferers is only 0.75% of all Americans — less than one percent.
Yet gluten-free is one of the hottest current marketing trends, the number of gluten-free foods continues to proliferate, and there is no shortage of heartfelt testimonials from people who’ve gone the gluten-free route and their lives have never been better!
So back to my question: Why and how did gluten-free suddenly become such a marketing powerhouse?
I have two explanations. One of them is the unending gullibility of too many people, who don’t bother to investigate the health claims that promise miracles and thus become suckers for any of dozens of quick-fix “solutions” to the myriad of chronic health problems afflicting our sedentary society.
The other factor has nothing to do with gluten per se, but everything to do with healthier diets. When people embrace a gluten-free diet, they become prospective customers for the gluten-free marketing mix supermarket retailers are so adept at promoting. However, at the same time, they also typically begin choosing foods other than bread, bagels, pastries and beer as dietary staples. That means eating more animal foods and more fruits and vegetables — and that’s all good.
In fact, I’d argue that many — if not most — of the pro-gluten-free testimonials about feeling better, looking better, losing weight, etc., are the result of substituting healthier protein foods and fresh produce for the bread-and-starches diet too many Americans have come to embrace.
In the end, it’s less about quitting the gluten and much more about adding the meat, dairy and produce.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator