The Gluten-Free Paradox

MANHATTAN – Wheat gluten is the food industry’s new bad guy. Blamed for everything from arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and acne to lethargy, acid reflux and migraines, wheat gluten is this generation’s culinary culprit.

As shopper Donna Jolna browsed the aisles of Whole Foods grocery store in Midtown Manhattan, she made sure to choose products labeled gluten-free. She said she feels better overall when she avoids wheat gluten.

Others blame wheat gluten for a host of physical ailments. Karen, who didn’t want to give her last name, says wheat gluten makes her break out on her face and arms with acne.

“It’s not going to affect me that much, just like a facial thing,” she said.

The idea that getting rid of wheat gluten can improve overall health and well being is an idea championed by a number of non-traditional doctors, such as nutritionists, life coaches and chiropractors.

Thirty percent of Americans are cutting wheat gluten out of their diets, according to a January survey by the consumer market research firm, the NPD Group. Harry Balzer is the chief industry analyst and vice president of that company and an expert on American dieting trends. The availability of gluten-free products has risen sharply in response.

But not everyone is happy about this new trend.

Dr. Peter H.R. Green is the director of The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University and a co-author of the book Celiac Disease: The Hidden Epidemic.

“It’s unclear why it’s so popular. Many non-traditional doctors, nutritionists, life coaches now are suggesting that people go on a gluten free diet but we don’t really know of any health benefits,” he said.

The Celiac patients Dr. Green treats have no choice but to avoid gluten in their diets.
Celiac is an autoimmune disorder that affects one percent of the population. The symptoms vary from person to person, and the disease is often misdiagnosed. According to Dr. Greene, it takes an average of eleven years before a celiac patient is correctly diagnosed as such. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reports that one percent of the population may have Celiac, but 83 percent of those afflicted remains undiagnosed.

Gluten sensitivity, the medical catchall fueling the gluten free food trend, is usually a self-diagnosis. Dr. Green says that some of these people may actually have Celiac disease.

Nicole Reilly of Forest Hills is on a gluten-free diet. She suspects she might have Celiac, but she is uninsured and has not gone to the doctor. After doing an Internet search of her symptoms, she discovered that wheat might be responsible.

“I did an experiment and went off them to see and I felt better. I haven’t looked back,” Reilly wrote in an email.

But it’s often difficult to see the difference between trend and medical necessity. For Celiac sufferers, knowing what and how to eat can be difficult. And when it comes to the gluten-free trend, the increased availability of gluten-free products isn’t necessarily a blessing.

Individuals who don’t have Celiac but report sensitivity to gluten can often eat products that Celiac patients cannot. And the food industry is capitalizing on this.

The FDA currently has no regulations for labeling products gluten-free.

Some products labeled gluten free say they are made in facilities that also manufacture wheat. Richard Lee was diagnosed with Celiac thirty years ago. He normally cooks at home and is extremely careful when he goes out to eat. He recently bought some crackers labeled “gluten free” but soon had a reaction to them.

“When they say gluten free on the package it’s wise to look and see what they say on it because when they say gluten free I’m not always sure it’s honest,” he said.

The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness keeps a directory of Celiac-safe products.

Dr. Green says that for non-celiacs, such as those who go on the diet to lose weight, a gluten-free diet can actually be detrimental to one’s health.

“There are in fact features in the diet which are detrimental to your health,” he said. “It can be low in fiber, the manufacturers don’t fortify non wheat flour. When we eat wheat flour they’ve added iron and B-vitamins to it. So like rice flour is not fortified with vitamins so people can become vitamin deficient on a gluten free diet.”

Until the FDA regulates the way gluten-free products are processed, shoppers like Jolna will continue to buy, and celiac patients like Mr. Lee will continue to be wary.

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