Justine Cirola decided to start following a gluten-free diet in hopes of improving her “overall health.” So why is this 21-year-old Stony Brook University giving up breads, cakes, cookies and other gluten rich products? “I eat gluten-free because I know that gluten only causes harm to my body.”
Cirola is part of a growing trend that has erupted in the last few years. According to a study by the research firm NPD, 30 percent of U.S. adults follow a gluten-free diet, while only one percent of those have Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes a severe allergy to gluten.
The result of this ever-growing trend is an expanding gluten-free food market where aisles and sections of major grocery chains carry gluten-free products: everything from Betty Crocker Brownie Mix to gluten-free beer. In the past five years, the market for these products in major grocery chains like Whole Foods has expanded to around 6.8 billion dollars, according to a market research study by Markets and Markets.
While some may see this lifestyle choice as just another profitable diet trend, others see it as a way to become healthier.
When Jo Tutrani, a dietitian from Smithtown, NY started telling her clients about the gluten-free diet twenty years go, she could only get about one in ten people to give the diet a try. In the past five years, she said that the statistic has raised to seven out of ten.
“Probably 80 percent of clients feel better,” she said. “There’s less bloating, more energy and definitely some weight loss. There’s just an overall feeling of increased health.”
So why has this trend just started to pick up the past few years? Dietitians first started recommending gluten-free diets beginning in the 1980s. Before the gluten-free market expanded, Tutrani said that it was difficult for people who had Celiac disease because gluten-free products were scarce and expensive.
When the market began to expand in the late 2000s, it wasn’t only Celiac patients who bought the products. A new wave of nutrition conscious consumers like Cirola started buying in too. It seemed like gluten-free was becoming another American diet fad, similar to the Atkins diet, non-GMO or Paleo diet.
But this newest trend isn’t just for get-skinny-quick dieters or nutrition enthusiasts. For the Nigro family, this trend has been a life-saver.
Their son, Cole, has Celiac disease, an extreme allergy to gluten that results in vomiting, diarrhea and bloating which can not be relieved by medication. With the expanding awareness of Celiac disease and access to gluten-free products, their dinnertime has become a lot easier.
Peggy Nigro, Cole’s mother, became emotional when recalling how her ill her son was before he was diagnosed and how it ravaged her family. “He would spend his nights throwing up and he lost so much weight.”
The entire Nigro family eats a gluten-free diet in support of Cole. “When you’re not supposed to eat gluten, it’s in places that you don’t expect,” she said. “They just want to be like everyone else.”
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye and is the cause of Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that results in the flattening of the villi, tiny-finger like structures in the small intestine, which makes gluten difficult to digest. Celiac disease causes bloating, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, weight-loss, anemia and fatigue, among other symptoms.
Another condition that has also been responsible for fueling this trend. It’s a self-diagnosed disorder called Non-Celiacs Gluten Sensitivity. It’s a disorder that has been researched extensively, but has caused a disagreement in the scientific community. Patients believed to have NCGS experience bloating, cramps and other gastrointestinal issues, but not to the same extreme as those with Celiacs.
“When doctors diagnose a gluten-sensitivity there is no real criteria to go on except for the patients symptoms, a lot of people might take it as someone overreacting,” said Courtney April, a graduate student in Nutrition at Stony Brook University. “But as a future dietician, I would never blow off someone’s symptoms and not talk about it.”
Some researchers have disputed the legitimacy of NCGS, saying that people must just be hopping on the newest dieting trend. Peter Gibson and Jessica Biesiekierski, researchers from Monash University in Australia completed an experiment in 2011 that tested 37 subjects with NCGS and irritable bowel syndrome and put them on a low FODMAP diet for two weeks. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Olio-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols, which in so many words describes a diet that is high in the carbohydrates found in processed sugars, lactose, wheat, legumes and some fruit.
All participants expressed that their symptoms improved after consuming the low FODMAP diet. After one week, they split the patients up into a high gluten group, a low gluten group and a control group. All three groups expressed that their symptoms worsened, even the control group that maintained the low FODMAP diet.
These findings have been examined by many researchers in order to show that it may not be gluten that causes the bloating and abdominal discomfort of those who have NCGS, but rather a diet high in FODMAPS. Following a low FODMAP diet often results in cutting out products with gluten, which may lead to the assumptions that drive this trend.
“I don’t think the general public is educated on what gluten actually does in the body,” said April. “On the other hand if they’re going to follow a gluten-free diet, a lot of people don’t know how to go about it the right way. The majority of the population has been gluten-phobic.”
Whether or not it is gluten that causes gastrointestinal issues or if it’s another trigger or a placebo, the food industry has taken advantage of this gluten-phobia. Some companies have started labeling products that never contained gluten as “gluten-free,” like gluten-free fruit juices or gluten-free yogurt. For people with Celiac disease, it’s important to know if the product was packaged in a location where it could have come into contact with gluten. But for the other 29 percent, this may just be playing into the impressionable minds of a diet-crazed society that is willing to fill up their grocery bills with products that are 242 percent more expensive than their non-specialized counterparts.
“I think some people get on it thinking that it’s going to cure everything,” Tutrani said. “‘I’m going to get off of gluten and I’m going to feel phenomenal.’ That doesn’t often happen because there a lot of other problems. It’s not a one fix for all.”
Instead, if you’re looking to go on a gluten-free diet to feel healthier or lose weight, it’s more important to focus on eating foods that are naturally gluten-free, like fruits, vegetables and meats, rather than products where the gluten has been removed. When gluten is removed, manufacturers replace the lost protein with extra sugar and sodium, which can raise the calorie count and lower nutritional value.
“Don’t just give up a standard American diet for another boxed diet,” Nigro said. Her family focuses on eating foods that are naturally gluten-free, like dried plantains or sweet potato Stromboli, rather than expensive gluten-free products.
After studying Nutritional Science for the past two years, April thinks that the trend will fizzle out in the next few years. “More people will be getting tested for Celiacs and less people will see that it actually causes weight loss,” she said.