Once limited to small sections in natural-food stores, gluten-free foods now proliferate on the mainstream stage. It’s hard to miss the array of gluten-free breads, cereals and crackers stocked on supermarket shelves. You even can find gluten-free pizza and beer.
Meanwhile, gluten-free menus are increasingly available in restaurants—from neighborhood joints to national chains, including Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s.
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, primarily wheat, barley and rye. When you see gluten-free grain products, they’re made with alternative flours and starches—often tapioca, rice or potato flour—instead of wheat flour.
Just within the past 2 years, 1,290 gluten-free products were introduced, according to Mintel, a research firm that tracks new products. Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, estimates that the market for gluten-free foods will grow to $1.7 billion in sales in 2010 from $700 million in 2007.
Part of the gluten-free surge is due to the increased awareness of celiac disease—an inherited autoimmune condition in which gluten can damage the intestines, interfere with nutrient absorption and lead to anemia, osteoporosis and other major problems if gluten is not strictly avoided. Once dismissed as a rare condition, celiac now is believed to affect 1 out of every 100 Americans.
But beyond celiac, dropping gluten from the diet has become the latest culinary fad, says registered dietitian Shelley Case, author of “Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.” In fact, food-industry experts predict that the biggest opportunity for the growing gluten-free market is not the 2 million Americans who have celiac but the millions more who perceive gluten to be a problem.
Gluten has emerged as a dietary demon—blamed for everything from arthritis pain to belly fat. However, gluten-free foods provide no specific health advantages, beyond the obvious benefits for those diagnosed with celiac disease.
“Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier,” Case warns.
THE HEALTH HALO. In some circles, going without gluten has become a badge of honor. The gluten-free lifestyle is embraced by devotees who believe it is simply a healthier way to eat—even if they don’t know why. Many vegans and raw-food enthusiasts have added gluten to their list of ingredients to avoid. Going gluten-free even has become trendy on college campuses.
If You Delete the Wheat
Among the most dedicated followers are families who believe that gluten affects autistic behavior. The purported benefits of a gluten-free diet for autism have relied on testimonials versus scientific evidence, although one of the first double-blind, clinical studies is under way at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Numerous Web sites and blogs promote gluten-free dieting as a weight-loss strategy, especially for women over 40. But Case says that there is nothing inherent in a gluten-free diet that will enhance weight loss, unless it helps you eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains (such as brown rice and quinoa) that are naturally gluten-free.
“I’ve actually seen people gain weight on a gluten-free diet, especially if they’re relying on a lot of highly refined gluten-free grain products,” Case says.
Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked items have twice the carbohydrates and often more sugar and fat compared with their gluten-containing counterparts, she says. That’s because when you remove gluten, you need extra sugar or fat to help the products stay together and be palatable.
MISSING THE NUTRIENTS. Gluten is a hard-working ingredient that provides the structure, strength and texture of crunchy baguettes, chewy bagels, airy muffins and flaky croissants. When you knead bread, you’re developing gluten, which gives dough its elasticity.
All of the boasting about being gluten-free on product labels might have you convinced that these foods are “better for you,” but don’t think you’re enhancing your health by loading up your shopping cart. In fact, gluten-free foods are often nutritionally inferior. Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked goods are made with refined flours and starches that are low in fiber and protein and that do not contain iron, folic acid or other B vitamins, which are routinely added to wheat flour. Because many gluten-free grain products are not enriched, people with celiac often have a hard time getting enough of these nutrients, Case adds.