As if fueled by its very own PR campaign, the gluten-free craze seems to have taken over grocery stores almost overnight. Many health-conscious consumers have embraced the gluten-free trend, believing a gluten-free diet to be healthier. But is it really?
Despite its bad reputation, many people don’t bother to find out what gluten actually is—proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale. For the general population, there is no evidence that eating gluten is harmful.
However, for those with Celiac disease, gluten is effectively poisonous. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects one in every 100 people.
For people with Celiac disease, gluten damages the villi—small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and promote nutrient absorption. The only treatment for Celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet.
When people with Celiac disease ingest gluten—even a minuscule amount, such as a breadcrumb left on a cutting board—their bodies launch an attack on their small intestines. In the short-term, these attacks can cause extreme pain and discomfort, but in the long-term, they can cause diabetes, multiple sclerosis, infertility and epilepsy.
With side effects like these, it’s no wonder why people, especially parents of young children, are concerned about Celiac disease. And the researchers agree—the incidence of Celiac disease is on the rise.
However, according to a press release issued by Elsevier Health Sciences, a new commentary suggests that the increased prevalence of Celiac disease does not account for the disproportionate increase in growth of the gluten-free food industry.
Commentary author Dr. Norelle Riley of New York Presbyerian-Columbia University has researched the health benefits of gluten-free diets. She found no connection between concern for Celiac disease and the increase in growth from the gluten-free food industry.
Dr. Riley, who specializes in pediatric gastroenterology, published her commentary this month in the Journal of Pediatrics.
According to the press release, the gluten-free food industry experienced a 136 percent growth from 2013 to 2016. In a 2015 study of 1,500 Americans, the most common explanation for choosing gluten-free foods was “no reason."
"Out of concern for their children's health, parents sometimes place their children on a gluten-free diet in the belief that it relieves symptoms, can prevent CD (Celiac disease), or is a healthy alternative without prior testing for CD or consultation with a dietitian,” Dr. Riley said in the press release.
Not only are these beliefs unsupported, but they can also be harmful. There are no proven health benefits of a gluten-free diet for those without Celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
In addition to increasing fat and calorie intake and contributing to nutritional deficiencies in healthy individuals, an unnecessary gluten-free diet could obscure the actual diagnosis of Celiac disease.
Additionally, the fad of gluten-free diets could contribute to a social stigma and trivialization for those with Celiac disease who should adhere to a strict gluten-free diet.
“The GFD (gluten-free diet) should be recommended judiciously and patients self-prescribing a GFD should be counseled as to the possible financial, social and nutritional consequences of unnecessary implementation,” Dr. Riley said in the commentary. “Health care providers may not be able to end the GFD fad, but can certainly begin to play a larger role in educating patients, excluding CD, and preventing nutritional deficiencies in those choosing to stay gluten-free."
Dr. Riley’s commentary was published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics.
She disclosed no funding or conflicts of interest.