In recent years, the food industry has seen a boom in the “free from” category, including a myriad of ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, toxic pesticides, artificial hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs. One such product that has been particularly demonized recently is gluten. Celebrities from Miley Cyrus to former president Bill Clinton have led the bandwagon on the gluten-free diet trend. Athletes such as tennis star Novak Djokovic credit improvements in performance to this diet. While eating gluten-free is necessary for those diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, research does not support the fad for the rest of us. Despite lack of scientific backing, many consumers believe that the gluten-free diet provides health benefits ranging from weight loss to antidepressant qualities even for those not diagnosed with any particular condition.
The gluten-free diet has transitioned from a diet followed by a small subgroup of consumers who have allergic or autoimmune reactions to gluten to a mainstream diet promising a variety of unrealistic benefits. Who does benefit from a gluten-free diet? The benefits accrue only to people who have a negative biological response to the proteins found in gluten; namely, the roughly 1% of consumers who have celiac disease, the 2-3% who are gluten sensitive, and the even smaller proportion who have wheat allergies. Celiac disease is a digestive, autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to react to gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley – by attacking healthy tissue. Gluten-intolerance is not immune-mediated and causes symptoms such as gassiness and diarrhea. This intolerance is similar in severity to lactose-intolerance and does not cause permanent damage. Wheat allergies cause an allergic reaction to proteins found in wheat. These somatic responses necessitate a gluten-free diet, but the media and food manufacturers have successfully marketed gluten-free products to a much wider pool of consumers. We do not see the same consumer response to other types of food limitations. For example, nobody self-prescribes themselves allergic to peanuts; yet, roughly one in five Americans actively avoids gluten.
Consumers justify their gluten-free diets as part of a healthful lifestyle in order to combat a variety of ailments. However, research shows that the diet may actually have a negative effect. A report by Mintel (2013) states that 22% of US consumers followed a gluten free diet in 2013, but only 16% of those consumers had been actually diagnosed with celiac disease. While some of those consumers may be gluten-intolerant, a large portion of them are self-prescribing themselves the diet in hopes of addressing a variety of health conditions, including depression (4%), inflammation (7%), weight loss (27%), “because it’s healthier” (65%) and 20% for other reasons.
There have been no scientific papers to support these claims; in fact, studies show that efforts to mimic gluten effects often result in gluten-free products’ containing significantly higher levels of fat and sugar. For example, Warburton’s gluten-free sliced white bread has 2.2 grams of fat and 80 calories per slice compared to its regular loaf’s 1 gram of fat and 58 calories per slice. Calories are not the only concern. In an effort to achieve gluten’s effect – helping breads retain their shape and softness – manufacturers often use additives such as xanthan gum, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, and cornstarch. Gluten-free products also may lack nutrients as they are often made with white rice flour or starches that are not enriched and consequently lack fiber, iron, and B vitamins. One reason people could be crediting their gluten-free diets for weight loss is that they are switching out bread products and high calorie snack foods in favor of fruits, vegetables, and a generally lower calorie diet. But simply switching conventional products to their similar, gluten-free counterparts may actually have a fattening effect.
The gluten-free diet is not only a nutritional concern; it also has significant financial consequences. Currently the gluten-free market is providing a gold mine for manufacturers. In the retail sector, sales of gluten-free foods had a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34% over the five-year period ending in 2014, when they reached $973 million, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts. Sales are projected to continue to grow, reaching $2 billion by 2019. Manufacturers also appear to be seizing the opportunity to raise prices of gluten-free products. One study shows that, on average, gluten-free products were 242% more expensive than regular products. According to Catalina Marketing, gluten free shoppers spend about $100 on an average grocery basket, compared to the $33 average grocery spending.
 Mintel’s Oxygen Report Database – Gluten-free Foods – US – September 2013