Gluten Free Fad – Is it Hurting or Helping?

Walk into most grocery stores these days and you will find a whole (albeit small) section dedicated to “Gluten Free Foods.”  Not only this – but you will also find gluten free foods still scattered throughout the store.  Maybe strategically done by the grocer so you’ll buy more.

You’ll find cookies, and flours, and breads, and brownie mixes.  You’ll find cereal, cereal bars, and sweets galore.  Forget the fruits and vegetables.  You have your own aisle dedicated to replacing all the things you haven’t been able to eat on this new celiac buzz.

A research paper done by Lee, Ng, Zivin & Green reviewed the costs and variety of gluten free products available in several types of grocery stores and noted that (what we all know) gluten free products were twice as expensive as other wheat-filled products and was impacted by type of venue.

The gluten free retail market is growing – Food Navigator lists several market values.  One as high as a $10.5 billion dollar industry with a predicted rise of 46% by 2016.  Another predicts $4.2 billion (as of 2012).  The smaller estimates are closer to $486.5 million with expected growth of 38.5% between 2013-2018.

This growth isn’t spurred by a flood of newly diagnosed celiacs to the market.

It’s spurred by this moving idea that gluten free is healthy, or healthier, than the alternatives.

Gluten free has become the new fat free.

I once picked up a box of band-aids that were advertised as gluten free.  Are you eating band-aids? Are your children eating band-aids?  I’ve seen bottles of water marketed as gluten free.  Gluten free water?  I really hope that should go without saying.

Given this increase in market value, product availability, and information out there… why are those with celiac disease not jumping for joy?  Because, in some ways, this trend is merely making things harder.

I bought two types of pasta the other day.  Same brand.  The boxes are brightly labeled gluten free – you can’t miss it.  I verified the ingredients list on the box of elbow pasta.  It’s the same company, I assumed I could stop there.  I got home and noticed after I stocked up on these pastas (they were 1.25$ a box!  Seriously, go Big Lots) that the Fusili was labelled as being manufactured in a plant that processes wheat.  The box screams “wheat free” “gluten free”.  The elbows do not have that same warning on them.  We had already eaten a box or two and we didn’t get sick but the struggle is real.

While we’ve been given more choices and better tasting ones, we’ve indirectly convoluted the system.  I can’t even trust gluten free products.  Comedians make jokes about gluten free – and while they’re funny, it sends a message.  Wait staff at restaurants remain uneducated about cross contamination because when you’re eating gluten free for fun… do you really worry about the hidden gluten?

Is it all bad?  No… we like that we have gluten free ice cream cones in the house.  I made a yummy key lime pie the other day using gluten free graham cracker crumbles for a crust.  Complaining?  Not at all.  But while there’s moments of helping, it’s also hurting and we’re walking a fine line of making money on the next diet craze and real disease.

What is your experience with the gluten free craze?  Is it hurting or helping?

Read more thoughts on the subject:

BBC News on The Gluten Free Diet
The Time Magazine on Gluten Free Diets
Huffington Post
Psychology Today

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