Words by James Tonin

gluten2From oat bran and Atkins to grapefruit and cabbage soup, recent history is littered with fad diets which have proven to be no more than flashes in the pan. Though most of these food trends have faded into memory, new ones have risen to take their place.

With the gluten-free craze currently sweeping North America and grocery store shelves stacked with light, low-fat and low-carb products, consumers are more inundated with confusing claims than ever before. The line between nutritional science and clever marketing can be a fine one, and taking manufacturer claims at face value may not result in the expected benefits.

Where does science end and marketing begin? Is there any real benefit to going gluten-free? To answer these questions, you’ve got to push past the marketing and look at the cold, hard facts behind food fads.

Will the Gluten-Free Craze Last?
In the past few years, gluten has found itself in the crosshairs of an all-out nutritional assault. Once confined to the small percentage of the population which suffers from celiac disease, gluten-free diets are now everywhere. Many major grocery stores have glutenfree aisles. Gluten-free restaurants are springing up in major urban centres. Media reports have linked gluten to a long list of health maladies, from irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes to clinical depression and even disorders like schizophrenia.

The gluten-free craze has all the hallmarks of a food fad. Drawing from inconclusive scientific research on the harmful effects of gluten, the gluten-free diet sprung up seemingly overnight and spread like wildfire. Is it destined for the same kind of bust the Atkins diet met after its boom years? For clues to the answer, let’s begin by looking at what gluten is and where the gluten-free diet trend came from in the first place.

What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a type of complex protein found in wheat, rye, barley and related grains. It gives dough a softer, more elastic and more pliable texture, resulting in a satisfying, chewy consistency. Beyond grain products, gluten is also found in many meat substitutes, as well as soy sauce, beer and foods like ketchup and ice cream which require stabilizing agents.

The Origin of the Trend
The gluten-free diet arose primarily from anecdotal evidence, largely proliferated by people without celiac disease who cut gluten out altogether. Many of these people reported an increased overall feeling of wellness, increased energy levels, and weight loss. As the purported benefits of going gluten-free began to catch on, more and more studies into the harmful effects of gluten were conducted. Some of the more extreme findings include links between gluten and schizophrenia, which have been reported since the early 1950s. These studies are built on observations which found links between gluten sensitivity and reduced risk of serious psychiatric illness.

While such studies make for great headlines, concrete links between gluten and mental illness are hard to come by, at least under serious scientific scrutiny. To date, there has not been a single study which has definitively linked gluten or casein with an increased risk of mental illness, even though researchers have been hunting down cold hard proof for over half a century.

What the Experts Are Saying
Growing numbers of scientists, researchers and nutrition experts are beginning to attribute the other widely reported benefits of glutenfree diets—weight loss and increased energy—to other factors. For example, one point of view that’s catching on is that boosted energy levels and reduced body fat aren’t the result of cutting gluten itself. Rather, these benefits come from cutting out desserts and other high-calorie, high-fat foods which contain gluten, thus triggering weight loss. In turn, the newly reduced body weight helps people feel more energetic.

According to a recent article in Scientific American magazine, going gluten-free when you don’t have gluten sensitivity can actually do more harm than good. The article notes that it is quite difficult to stay faithful to a gluten-free diet, and doing so actually puts you at risk of cutting important nutrients out of your diet altogether. A common sentiment is beginning to prevail in the scientific community: if you don’t have celiac disease, there’s no reason for you to eliminate gluten from your diet.

“People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice,” said Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, the director of clinical celiac disease research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. “They’ll simply waste their money, because [gluten-free] products are expensive.”

Follow the Money
Following the money offers a telling glimpse of what’s really fuelling the gluten-free fire. In the United States, the gluten-free food market generates over $4 billion annually—and it’s grown by over 40 percent since 2006. In Canada, only 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, but there are an estimated 9 million people on gluten-restricted diets. That’s a full 25 percent of the country’s population. What’s more is that a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research found that gluten-free foods retail for an average of 242 percent more than their regular equivalents.

If you’ve adopted a gluten-free diet and you’re happy with the results, there’s no real reason for you to switch back. However, you shouldn’t be surprised if your grocery store’s gluten-free aisle shrinks or your favourite gluten-free restaurant closes its doors a few years from now, when the next big thing in food fads takes the world by storm.

James Tonin is a GTA-based yet globetrotting freelance writer. When he’s not contributing to Spirit of the City, you can find him flexing his brain by writing screenplays.