Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend

By Samuel Fromartz, "The Gluten Enigma," March/April 2015

The gluten-free trend keeps growing. But is it all just hype? Does gluten sensitivity really exist? Are more people being diagnosed with celiac disease? Is modern wheat the problem or could it be genetic engineering? Here we unravel the facts.

"very interesting article but most of the stuff on here are already known to us already eating gluten free. "

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative journalism organization.

A few years ago, when I began writing a book about grains and bread, the first question I usually got when I mentioned the project was: “Why are so many people having problems with wheat?” In many ways, the question encapsulated the current anxiety around bread and wheat, which has gyrated from a source of sustenance for humanity into a toxic pariah.

Wheat—and the main protein it contains, gluten—has been cited as a cause of weight gain, “brain fog,” skin rashes, joint pain, headaches, tiredness, allergies, gas, intestinal distress, irritable bowel syndrome, depression and, in the case of celiac disease—where the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body—even death. Yet wheat, which is found not only in bread and pasta, but also in beer and numerous processed foods, makes up one-fifth of all food eaten worldwide and is the ­number-one source of protein in developing countries. Humans have been eating wheat for around 10,000 years, starting with domestication of wild grasses in the Near East, at the dawn of agriculture.

With all the illnesses and ailments associated with wheat and gluten, it leads one to wonder: Could the human race have been so wrong about this staple food for so long? Or are the health concerns a figment of over­active imagination, propelled by the gluten-free trend?

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Consumer data are pretty clear: around 22 percent of adults are trying to avoid gluten, creating an estimated $8.8 billion market that grew 63 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to market research firm Mintel. As many as 20 million Americans think gluten-free diets are healthier and around 13 million are giving up gluten to lose weight. Yet “the vast majority of individuals on gluten-free diets have no business being gluten-free, because, for them, there is no medical necessity,” says Alessio Fasano, M.D., director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children and an authority on the subject. He adds, “it’s simply fashion.” Jimmy Kimmel even poked fun at this trend on late-night TV, asking people on the street who were going gluten-free if they actually knew what gluten was. None could answer the question. It’s a protein—actually composed of about 70 different glutenin and gliadin proteins which stretch and trap gas as dough rises, creating airy bread.

Compared with this lifestyle boom, the number of people who must avoid gluten for medical reasons is considerably smaller. An estimated 1 percent of all people have celiac disease, though only a small portion have actually been diagnosed and know they must steer clear of gluten. Another smaller group, about 0.4 percent of the population, suffer from sudden allergic reactions to ingesting wheat or breathing flour dust. Then there’s a third group of “gluten-sensitive” people, who appear to have symptoms when they consume gluten that can’t be explained by celiac disease or wheat allergy. Like celiac disease, the symptoms of gluten sensitivity are diverse and not confined to the gut. They include joint pain, muscle cramps, leg numbness, reflux, weight loss, chronic fatigue, depression and “brain fog”—a complaint that describes an inability to focus, and which can impair work and social life. The first and still imprecise studies on gluten sensitivity estimate that 0.6 to 6 percent of people suffer from it. This rudimentary understanding of the condition may help explain why so many people think they are gluten sensitive.

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