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Let's Talk Gluten-Free For A Moment

Sans Gluten | Photo: kahala/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Grow old enough and you quickly realize that trends of any nature are to be met with great skepticism. Those trunks of acid-wash jeans and boxes of Beta tapes in your parents' basements should be proof enough. And that healthy skepticism carries over when it comes to the world of dieting trends. Our bodies are different enough to where one diet should not fit all: there shouldn't be one magic cure-all that provides us all with perfect results. If everyone's doing it, it's best to be wary.

Which to ask, what do we make of this gluten-free revolution?

A new survey shows that 30 percent of folks are trying to avoid gluten in their diets. That means they're spending time -- and, as you'll see, plenty of money -- steering clear from wheat, rye, and barley, thusly meaning they're staying away from pastas, cereals, and (gasp!) even most beers. Gluten has become the "trans fat" or "high levels of sodium" or "high fructose corn syrup" of the 2010s. But the disconnect is that unlike those scientifically-proven "evil" ingredients listed above, gluten is, for most of us, not that bad for our bodies.

Celiac disease, the ailment that causes a person's body to react violently after ingesting gluten, affects only two million Americans. That's a ratio of 1 in every 133 people in the country. A slightly higher percentage of people than that have gluten allergies or general gluten intolerance. But that's still quite a ways away from the 30% of people that feel gluten is something that cannot exist in their diet, that it is ruining their health. So what may be the most surprising part of this dieting trend is that, well, it actually seems to work.

Talk to your friends who are going gluten-free, and you'll no doubt hear testimonials about how healthy they feel, how they're never going back, how you just have to try this diet. (After all, if the diet didn't make people feel better, it certainly wouldn't be going viral like it has.) But unless they are one of the few who do have gluten allergies, the actual removal of gluten has roughly zero percent to do with what's making them feel better. So what is it then?

As this exploration of the gluten-free diet from Scientific American points out:

"There's nothing magical about eliminating gluten that results in weight loss," Mangieri said. "Any of us that eliminates or removes cookies and candies from our diets, and replaces them with fruits and vegetables is going to feel better."

In other words, people are feeling better because they're eating better. They're paying more attention to their diets, cutting out junk foods like pizzas and cookies, and replacing them with fruits and vegetables (both of which happen to be "gluten-free"). Those kinds of changes in a person's diet can only pay positive dividends when it comes to health. But people believe the removal of gluten is the reason for feeling better -- the whole causation vs. correlation principle thing is going on here -- so they continue buying and requesting items that are gluten-free. And seeing as the food industry is not full of idiots, that means the grocery markets are now flooded with boutique "gluten-free" items that can be sold at a premium cost. And boy, are they raking in that gluten-free dough.

This piece over at Time suggests that simply because of the phrase "gluten-free," Americans are being bilked out of billions of dollars. On average, gluten-free products cost 242% more than those with gluten in them. 242 percent more! To give you an example to make this percentage rock your mental wallet some more, that means if a normal pizza costs $10, that same pie, once the gluten is removed through various substitutes, costs a tad over $24. That is not an insignificant amount. And, for the most part, is completely unnecessary.

The big problem lies in the fact that most snacks now labeled "gluten-free" are either items that were already gluten-free to begin with (things like nuts and Rice Chex) or are using substitutes that really offer no health benefit. A gluten-free pizza isn't necessarily any healthier than a normal pizza. Pizza's pizza. But the one with the extra label, the one that's going to cost you 242% more money, just doesn't have the wheat ingredients that would affect you if you have celiac or a gluten allergy. Which, as mentioned above, you probably don't. So by spending money on this gluten-free item, you're essentially just throwing your money away.

Instead, to get the health benefits of a gluten-free diet, people should focus on foods that already don't have the dreaded gluten inside of them rather than using substitutes as a way to sneak the foods into your diet. For instance, add in some more fruits and veggies, or take our Wheatless Wednesday recipes out for a spin. Those gluten-free items will have health benefits for you even if you don't have a gluten allergy simply because they are healthy foods to begin with.

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