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Caveat emptor with gluten free

By LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online)
February 21st, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Gluten-free diets are all the rage, stimulating a $2.5 billion (and growing) market for gluten-free foods, fad books, and quack remedies. While there are a number of people who require a gluten-free diet, the heavily marketed, yet questionable scientific claims have a number of people spending extra money just to cut out a component of their diet that is entirely harmless.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Gluten is a component protein composite found in many grain-based foods, especially barley and rye. The substance is entirely natural and gives dough its elastic quality and bread the chewy texture we often enjoy. Because gluten is a protein, it is an important part of human nutrition. In fact, gluten is often added to low-protein foods to make them more nutritious. 

Humans have been consuming gluten since prehistoric times and except for the rare cases when an individual has an allergy to it, it has proven harmless, and in fact beneficial -- providing essential protein to our ancestors. 

So why all the hysteria?

Gluten is a concern for the approximately 6 percent of Americans who have a genuine nutritional disorder that prevents them from safely consuming the nutrient. However, odds are that you are not part of that 6 percent. Only a doctor can safely and correctly diagnose a gluten allergy and prescribe a strict diet that ensures your health. Otherwise, the vast majority of people who are "discovering" the gluten free life are actually depriving themselves of nutrients at the prompting of market-savvy advertising. 

This is a choice that should only be made on the advice of a professional, personal physician, and should not come from a book, infomercial, or anyone who is self-styled as an "individual/personal consultant." Note the agenda. Your physician has years of medical school and is bound by an oath and a professional duty, (not to mention legal liability) to diagnose your condition following scientifically controlled, standardized tests. Everyone else wants you to buy something based on self-diagnosis - or worse. And they will be quick to make statements to limit their liability because they know the claims they are making are not based on broad scientific consensus and lack formal (FDA) approval. 

However, as fads come and go, gluten free is the latest in a series, and it is a rapidly growing multi-billion dollar industry. It makes sense that marketers and quack doctors will capitalize on the opportunity to make a quick fortune.

But it's harmless, so what's the problem?

If a gluten-free diet is harmless, then why criticize it? Why not let people eat what they will - isn't it better to be safe than sorry? The problem is that any medical condition that is diagnosed or treated without the advice of a professional, practicing, personal physician is inherently dangerous. At a minimum, dieters are depriving themselves of nutrients. 

Still, there is no evidence that depriving oneself of gluten is actually harmful, at least not from a medical perspective. However, it can be expensive. Gluten-free pastas, breads, and other products cost much more than their normal counterparts - and that's only the start.

In addition to paying more for food, those who follow the gluten-free lifestyle soon find themselves purchasing "supplements" and books which part them with their cash far better than helping them achieve better health. 

But it gets worse. According to several anorexia awareness websites, the gluten-free diet is also being used as a cover for people with eating disorders. One anorexia commenter has even gone so far as to refer to gluten free as the "best diet trick ever." That's because the gluten-free lifestyle, while designed to save the lives of some patients with genuine allergies, is also being used by others to conceal eating disorders. 

In any case, gluten-free is very much the latest fad diet. Like all others, it will fade with time. Most of the people who follow the fad will only be poorer for their efforts, but are unlikely to suffer any ill effects, so long as they avoid the supplements, which may carry their own risks. 

For those who have gluten allergies, the recent fad should provide a boon in the form of more offerings on store shelves, so there is a silver lining to this. 

But for most Americans, struggling to put groceries in their cupboard and fighting to maintain their health, following fad diets and quack doctors will only delay, or at worse, set back efforts to manage their health effectively. The gluten-free fad is just the latest pitfall for consumers. Caveat emptor!

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