As the interest in gluten free foods continues to skyrocket, many are baffled about the underlying reasons for their popularity.

Words by Lynn Elsey

According to recent reports, 18 per cent the population is now buying gluten free products, a 28 per cent increase from 2008–2012. In the US alone the market for gluten free products was around US$4.2 billion in 2012 and estimated to reach $6.5 billion by 2017, according to research company Packaged Facts. The total number of new products claiming to be gluten free in the US increased from around 600 in 2007 to more than 1,600 in 2011 according to Mintel research.

These numbers will come as no surprise to anyone in Australia who has wandered the aisles of their local grocery store, perused the menu at any café or restaurant or worked in an office with a communal kitchen in the past few years, especially where females are in abundance.

The explanation for the rapid expansion is somewhat baffling to many within the food industry – especially in regards to the actual number of people who have been clinically or even self-diagnosed
with celiac disease or wheat/gluten intolerance.

One factor seems to be the perception that following a gluten free diet will lead to weight loss. Indeed a recent US poll of registered dietitians predicted that gluten free diets would be the most popular diet option in 2013. In response to the survey Ryan O’Malley, a media relations manager for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that the organisation did not recommend gluten free diets for weight loss and “we advise that only those that have a gluten intolerance or have celiac disease should eliminate gluten from their diets”.

The numbers

The US Center for Celiac Research reports that less than 0.1 per cent of the population has been confirmed with a celiac disease diagnosis and estimates that overall 1 per cent of the US population actually suffers from celiac disease. It also has found that 6 to 7 per cent of population has a wheat/gluten intolerance “whether perceived or otherwise”.

Similar numbers have been reported the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, which claims that nearly 1 out of every 133 Americans suffers from celiac disease. The centre is keen to clarify the difference between celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, and gluten sensitivity. The center has recently published research showing that gluten sensitivity is: “a different clinical entity that does not result in the intestinal inflammation that leads to a flattening of the villi of the small intestine that characterizes celiac disease. Researchers believe that gluten sensitive reactions do not engender the same long-term damage to the intestine that untreated celiac disease can cause.”

Coeliac Australia provides similar statistics to the Center for Celiac Research, finding that 1 in 100 Australians suffer from celiac disease, although 75 per cent of these people currently remain undiagnosed.

So, how does one explain the popularity of gluten free, above and beyond those who have clinical health issues?

Many are pointing fingers at celebrity endorsements, unscrupulous dietitians and nutritionists, avoidance of proper medical diagnosis and, more generally, good marketing and bad science.

Packaged Facts conducted a US survey in August 2012 asking people why they purchased gluten free products. The responses included:

  • they are healthier: 35 per cent
  • to manage my weight: 27 per cent
  •  they are generally low-carb: 21 per cent
  • a member of my household has a gluten or wheat intolerance: 15 per cent
  • a member of my household has celiac disease: 7 per cent.

The Science

According to Pamela Cureton, clinical research dietitian at the Center for Celiac Research, there is no scientific basis behind the popular concept that a gluten-free diet will help individuals lose weight and improve their health (in the absence of celiac disease).

She said that research has found that “people on gluten-free diets often gain weight, as many gluten-free foods are quite calorie dense.”  She also noted that gluten-free diets are often higher in fat and lower in vitamin B12, zinc, iron and folate. But the gluten free trend seems be gaining momentum she said during a presentation at the Whole Grains on Every Plate conference in Texas in October 2012.

Cureton’s comments are mirrored by Glenn Gaesser, professor and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center in the Arizona State University (US) School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. Gaesser recently published an article in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (September 2012) that showed that undertaking a gluten free diet was not an effective method of losing weight, and that some data suggested that gluten might be the source of health benefits.

“It’s an industry based on a false premise,” Gaesser said. “It’s become such a popular notion that if you Google ‘gluten-free diet’ you’ll get more than 4.2 million results. Celebrities endorse it, and there are hundreds of books being published
on it.

“But the only reason you would lose weight is that you’re cutting calories.”

“However, there are indications that gluten may contribute to blood pressure control and immune function, and may create a healthy composition of colon bacteria.”

Gaesser said that a gluten free diet often leads to weight gain because many gluten free products have more added fats and sugars than other products.

“This paper is one of the first to look at the other side of the gluten craze. Far too many Americans are following the diet for reasons that simply do not make sense. It’s time to listen to the science.”

 

Lynn Elsey is the editor of food Australia