If you have been paying any attention to commercials, magazine ads, food labels, television infomercials, diet books, restaurant menus or even gossip stories of the rich and famous, you have encountered the phrase “gluten-free”.
For most readers, the background of why the phrase gluten-free may be significant is a little fuzzy, if not completely obscure.
For some consumers, after seeing the words gluten-free splashed proudly across the labels of a thousand products will automatically lead them to make the assumption that whatever this gluten thing is must be bad and that gluten-free is a good thing.
Food sellers count on that absent minded reflex buying action to sell lots of products.
The fat-free fad is still selling billions of dollars of unhealthy foods because some consumers are not concerned enough to educate themselves about whether fat-free is an actual advantage.
Let me illustrate that concept with a single example of ice cream labeled fat-free and sugar-free. Considering that authentic ice cream is made of dairy cream that contains a significant amount of fat, doesn’t it make you wonder about that fat-free concoction?
If two of the four ingredients in natural ice cream are fat and sugar, what exactly is in fat-free, sugar-free ice cream?
If you produce a product that normally contains fat as a significant ingredient without fat, you will have to replace the fat with something else to create the texture and consistency that the fat added to the food. In many cases, that fat substitute is a laboratory creation that is not something you would choose to eat if you knew about it.
Similarly, labeling products as being gluten-free has sold millions of dollars of products because consumers just assume gluten-free is a good thing.
As discussed last week, gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, barley and a few other grains.
For some unfortunate individuals, avoiding gluten is truly a life or death concern. These people were born with an inherited disorder called celiac disease. Celiac disease results in a condition wherein consumption of gluten can cause mild to very severe reactions.
In addition to people with celiac disease, recent research has led many health experts to the conclusion that about 6% of the population has gluten sensitivity. For these people, consuming gluten can result in symptoms as widely varied as digestive distress, mood disorders, and joint pain.
You may be gluten sensitive without knowing it.
Most people in this category have no idea that they are gluten sensitive. They just know that they don’t feel very well a good portion of the time.
They might complain of bloating, gastric distress, headaches, depression or moodiness, or multiple areas of joint pain or other symptoms.
In some cases multiple trips to medical specialists over the years has turned up no reason for their symptoms or they have labeled as having generalized terms such as arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome or mild depression.
Some health and nutrition experts have even gone so far as to suggest that most people have some degree of sensitivity to gluten that impairs their health at least to some degree. In other words, we would all feel better and enjoy healthier daily existence by avoiding gluten.
The popular book Wheat Belly makes a good case for this conclusion. In the book it is discussed that not only is the wheat that we consume today much different from the wheat that our ancestors ate, we are consuming far greater quantities of refined wheat than our ancestors.
The significance of that lies partially in the fact that our genetic code is essentially the same as our ancestors but we have yielded to convenience so far that the foods we eat today would no longer be recognizable to our great grandparents as food.
Some experts are not convinced that gluten is such a bad thing. At this point, both sides of the gluten controversy have good arguments to back them up so the gluten issue is unresolved.
For my patients that ask, I suggest that if in doubt they simply try the gluten-free approach for three months to see how they respond. Many people will find a significant benefit in their health when they do so.