How the gluten-free trend jeopardizes health

Illustration by Nyomi Fox

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About a year ago, my sister and I were at Giant when we saw a new type of Annie’s mac and cheese in the gluten-free section. Delighted, we picked it up and were walking to the checkout aisle when we realized that the flavor we had picked up actually contained gluten. For anyone who is on a gluten-free diet for non-medical reasons, the Giant’s shelf stocking mistake would simply be a nuisance. But for those like me, who have gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, that mistake could result in severe pain and illness. This stocking error is an example of the gluten-free diet’s damaged reputation, garnered due to the recent emergence of the gluten-free fad.

Once only practiced for medical necessity, the popularity of the gluten-free diet rose in the early 2010s as celebrities claimed it helped with weight loss and overall health. For people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, the diet is essential to minimizing the potential consequences, but it does not reap all the benefits that many people assume. Just being on the diet for non-medical reasons does not mean a person is immediately healthier. “Going gluten-free” means cutting out wheat, rye and barley—main sources of complex carbohydrates that are difficult to supplement. Also, most gluten-free processed foods contain more sugar to improve the taste. The gluten free diet is not only exclusively effective for people with celiac and gluten sensitivities, the diet costs a lot of money to maintain. According to a 2015 study conducted by NIH, gluten-free bread and bakery products are 267% more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts.

There are many more practical and less expensive ways to be healthy for those without a medical restriction. But for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, the gluten-free diet is our only option to live a healthy and productive life. The sensitivity varies from person to person, but for most people with celiac disease, even the smallest amount of gluten can ignite a painful reaction. Celiac disease requires vigilance, especially from restaurants, to ensure that the customer does not get sick.

The problem with the rise of the diet is that people started regarding “gluten-free” as a luxury instead of a necessity. When people mistake a medically necessary diet for a health-related trend, people form misconceptions of the severity of the condition. For example, Albanese Gummi bears very clearly state they are gluten-free on the front of the bag, but if you look at the ingredients, it states the product “may contain gluten.” Companies, like Albanese, capitalize on the gluten-free health trend but convey disgusting disregard for those with actual medical conditions.

The trend of the gluten free diet is undeniable, but the trend should be reserved to consumers, not companies. By hopping on the lackadaisical bandwagon of being loosely gluten-free, companies put those with medical restrictions at serious risk. Companies that want to enter the gluten-free market need to take the proper precautions to ensure that their products are safe for all gluten-free consumers, not just the ones who are participating in a temporary trend.

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