In May 2014, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew out to streets of Los Angeles to interview people who said they were on gluten-free diets. However, none of the interviewees were able to define gluten. They just heard it was bad. And with a name that sounds like glue times ten, little wonder that one-quarter of all consumers polled by USA Today in 2013 said they wanted gluten-free food.
In reality, people have been eating gluten for millennia. It is a complex of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye that works with yeast to make dough rise, giving bread its spongy texture. About one percent of Americans, 1 in 100, has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that makes them unable to properly digest gluten. This can result in stomach pain, diarrhea, iron deficiency, and other severe problems. Researchers believe that only a small fraction of the 3 million people with celiac disease have been properly diagnosed.
An unknown number people have either wheat allergies or gluten intolerance. Unlike celiac disease, which can be detected with an endoscopic biopsy of the small intestine, there are no good tests for these other conditions. Tests for wheat allergies are notoriously unreliable. And claims of gluten intolerance are simply based on subjects complaining of bloat, low-energy, and feelings of depression and mental fogginess after eating gluten.
Consumption of products made with highly refined wheat flour has soared in the past 50 years. Millions who live on pizza, pasta, cakes, cookies, and other processed foods might be suffering from gluten overload or at least gluten sensitivity.
While science sorts out fact from fiction, the gluten-free food industry has grown into a $4.2 billion behemoth. The problem with many of these products is that they are highly processed. Manufacturers have replaced gluten with thickening agent called xanthan gum, a product also known to cause allergies and indigestion.
While the glut of gluten-free products is beneficial to those with celiac disease, most nutritionist recommend a diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Except for whole wheat and rye, none of these foods contain gluten. For most people, increasing consumption of whole foods while reducing the intake of junk food will go a long way towards improving health and lowering risks associated with obesity.