A small percentage of us have celiac disease but you wouldn't know it from the fast-rising sales of gluten-free foods.
Gluten—the substance used in foods to give it a stretchable and elastic texture—must be avoided by those who have celiac disease, since it damages the villi in the small intestines, the small hair-like extensions that line the stomach and allow it to absorb nutrients.
But for reasons that aren't quite clear, more and more people who don’t have the digestive illness are staying away from gluten too, which experts say isn’t the best idea for both health and financial reasons.
According to those experts, a growing number of people associate the elimination of gluten with weight loss and good health, and because people do happen to lose weight while avoiding gluten, those numbers have only increased.
However, the main reason a person may lose weight on a gluten-free diet is because certain nutrients aren’t being absorbed, not because gluten itself is fattening, and the lack of guten is truly bad for those without celiac disease, experts say.
Harry Balzer, the head industry analyst at the NPD group says people who eliminate gluten from their diet without having celiac disease, do it behind a false feeling of wellness.
“Most people must be doing this because they think they feel better, or they do feel better but they’re not diagnosed with gluten issues,” he said in a statement.
But the cost to live gluten-free isn’t small in the least bit, as Time magazine pointed to a study finding that showed products without gluten were 242% higher in price, which can be downright damaging to one’s bank account.
Health officials stress the importance of people following diets that have plenty of scientific evidence, instead of following diets that seem to be trendy and that become popular due to a lot of personal testimonials.
Furthermore, consumers should know exactly why they’re following certain diets and fully establish both the actual health benefits and the overall health risks.
No scientific support
Researchers say the number of people who are avoiding gluten and don’t have celiac disease “seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up.”
“This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become ‘the new diet villain,'" a recent study found.
As far as the number of adults who say they stay away from gluten, the percentages have increased just a bit, but consistently, as about 26% percent of people between the ages of 18 to 49 said they’ve eliminated gluten from their diets, which is a 2% increase since 2010.
Of course some of the ingredients in foods that have gluten are barley, wheat, rye, spelt and oats, and all kinds of everyday foods contain the stuff like luncheon meats, cereals, sauces, marinades, packaged broths, soy sauce, MSG, rice mixes and modified food starch, just to name a few.
Even makeup and beauty products may contain gluten, so there’s no surprise that major cosmetic and food brands have rolled out a host of gluten-free products to cash in on the current craze.
According to the research company Spins, gluten-free food sales have swelled from $4.8 billion in 2009, to $5.4 billion in 2010 to a whopping $6.1 billion in 2011, and the numbers continue to go way, way up.
Today, leading companies that have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon are General Mills with its cereals, Pirate potato chips and Udi’s, which has a number of gluten-free breads on the market.
NPD's Balzer says the concept of removing gluten from a person’s diet has replaced some of the additives of old, that people used to heavily protest and avoid like fat and salt.
“A generation ago, health was about avoiding fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium in our diet,” he said. “While those desires still exist for many, they no longer are growing concerns.”