Is Gluten-Free A Gimmick?

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Do you get the eye-roll when you mention you’re living gluten-free?

Once people hear that I have co-authored a gluten-free cookbook I either get the eye-roll or a question. The questions range from the legitimate to the lame, but at least a question is something I can work with! But the eye-roll, that’s a tough one.

If you have a pre-teen or teenager at home (like I do), you’re more than familiar with the eye-rolling technique of expressing disdain. In this case though, I can’t always dismiss the eye-roll as just an impudent adolescent! And in this case, the eye-roll can mean any number of things—none of them particularly fun to confront given that the eye-roller seems to have already made up his/her mind about the topic of gluten-free.

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There is one meaning of the eye-roll that I cannot argue with, and that is this: the gluten-free diet’s popularity frequently seems to focus on the marketing of a plethora of over-priced gluten-free goodies. As a result, many consumers (who may not really know much about celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or gluten-free foods) have chalked-up “gluten-free” as simply a marketing gimmick. Sadly, in some cases I have to agree. Why? There are several reasons:

1)      A healthy gluten-free diet can be achieved with minimal use of processed gluten-free foods. The basics of a gluten-free diet include the same things that non-gluten-avoiders need: abundant fruits and vegetables, beans, protein, healthy fats, whole grains and maybe some dairy products. Yes, the whole grain choices for those avoiding gluten are more restrictive, but there are still plenty of grains and grain-like staples to choose from (including rice, amaranth, millet, quinoa, teff, flax seed/meal, cornmeal).

2)      Gluten-free processed treats are not inherently more healthful than other processed treats. By this, I obviously mean that, unless you need to avoid gluten for medical reasons, the consumption of a gluten-free treat versus a regular treat doesn’t mean you’ve made a superior nutrition choice. Gluten-free cupcakes are still cupcakes! A gluten-free proclamation on a product label really doesn’t mean much if you don’t need to eat gluten-free foods for medical reasons. This goes for regular gluten-free foods, too (as opposed to treats), which often lack the nutrients that their regular counterparts contain due to the required ingredient substitutions.

3)      The prices of “non-essential” gluten-free foods can be shockingly high. Yes, it’s true that the cost of certain gluten-free ingredients is high, and it costs more to manufacture gluten-free processed foods on production lines that are kept safe/free of gluten “contamination”—nobody debates these legitimate costs, and certainly I’m no expert in this area. However, I can’t help but think that some manufacturers and stores are milking the gluten-free trend for every penny they can. It’s the nature of business.

Kit’s Conclusion

Certainly, people who eat gluten-free should be allowed some treats and packaged snacks—in fact, I’d say that having a few of these things available is wise-who knows when you’ll be stuck somewhere and needing food? Having some gluten-free snacks in your glove box, your desk drawer at work, or your gym bag isn’t a sin—it’s smart!

My point is just that I can see how some people have come to the conclusion that the world of gluten-free is just about marketing special foods. That is the way it appears to the average shopper at the supermarket who happens down the “healthy food” aisle and finds ever-expanding shelves full of gluten-free goodies. It is a shame, because it’s not about that, obviously.

And the explosion of the gluten-free packaged food business has provided people with some nice options (and some not so great ones), but it has also taken away from the serious reasons why a gluten-free diet is necessary for some people. It’s diluted the crucial health messages about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, the important food safety issues for those who eat and cook gluten-free, and the necessity of seeking a medical consultation instead of just self-diagnosing.

(Gluten-Free Graphic from paleodietnews.com)
(Gluten-Free Grocery Cart from holdthegluten.net)

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