Archive for March, 2014

Are You a Gluten for Punishment?

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Over 840 million people in the world are hungry. Yet for millions of Americans obsessed with food phobias, gluten – if you’ll pardon the expression – takes the cake. Time magazine, in its survey of Americans’ food eating habits, labeled the gluten-free movement number 2 out of its top 10 list of food trends in 2012. A recent market research report by the NPD Group states that of 1000 respondents one third are cutting back on dietary gluten big time.

Gluten (from Latin gluten or glue) is a composite protein in wheat, barley, and rye and thus found in foods processed from these grains, such as bread, cakes and other baked goods, as well as breakfast cereal and pasta. Rice, including “sticky rice” and corn are gluten-free.

What’s so Frightful about Gluten?

Celiac disease is an uncommon autoimmune disorder of the small intestine which occurs in genetically predisposed people.  Symptoms, most classically appear in children, include abdominal pain, chronic constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, growth failure, and anemia due to malabsorption. In adults some of these complaints may be absent, and symptoms in other organ systems have been described. Increasingly, diagnoses are being made in asymptomatic persons as a result of various, if controversial screening tests for certain antibodies.True celiac disease, according to The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center affects about 0.75% of Americans, about 1 in 133, but some figures quoted in Wikipedia suggest a much lower prevalence. Yet, despite these statistics, gluten fright has captured the public mind, becoming a “dietarily” correct food phobia on a level with the usual suspects: sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats, carbs, and cholesterol.

Why celiac disease symptoms, especially in adults, are so varied and why gluten may not be the culprit in non-celiac gluten sensitivity are discussed in this important article in the journal Gastorenterology. The authors reported results of various gluten challenge diets and compared them with reversion to a normal diet in 37 patients. Only 6 patients responded to pure gluten challenge. Although the study was limited, it raises vital questions about the oft-reported improvement on gluten free diets by the public. The researchers concluded that the large majority of people with self-reported gluten sensitivity didn’t experience symptoms after a gluten challenge when they had eliminated foods high in certain carbohydrates from their diets. *

Shopping for Gluten-Free and Your Grocery Bill

Another excellent article by Martha C. White, declaresl: “Why We’re Wasting Billions on Gluten-Free Food”. Ms. White points out that, as food fads go, we’re paying an enormous premium to avoid gluten without any legitimate medical reason. In effect, we are hypnotized by urban myths, advertising, and the profusion of gluten-free grocery shelves. The “99%” imagine they’ll feel better, attain good health, and who knows, longevity-by shelling out huge bucks for gluten free-food they probably don’t need.

Foody nonsense and fad diets along with their accompanying phobias masquerading as dietary theology, go back to the 70s, when sugar became the bête noir of foods. Then, as mentioned above, it was fat, salt, carbs, cholesterol-and finally the latest pariah ingredient, gluten. People who have bad reactions to common gluten-containing foods – pasta, breads, baked goods and breakfast cereal – may actually be sensitive to something else. It’s also probable that some people develop gastrointestinal or other symptoms simply because they believe they’re food-sensitive.

Researchers from Dalhousie Medical School at Dalhousie University in Canada compared the prices of 56 ordinary grocery items that contain gluten with their gluten-free counterparts. All of the gluten-free ones were more expensive, and some were much more expensive. The average unit cost of the gluten-free product was $1.71 while the average unit cost of the regular gluten-containing product was $ 0.61. This translates to gluten free products costing 242% more than the “real thing.”

The challenge has been met by an increasing number of food manufacturers who have happily entered this highly profitable growth industry. The market research company Packaged Facts said in a report last fall the gluten-free market in the United States was $4.2 billion last year. It predicts that the category will grow to $6.6 billion by 2017.

See my recent newsletter for a more complete discussion

Martin F. Sturman, MD, FACP

Copyright 2014, Mathemedics, Inc.