Archive for March, 2011

Gluten-free Faddists

March 2, 2011


Overtaking rawism for the most popular fad diet today is gluten-free eating. Now don’t get me wrong, there are valid medical reasons why certain people should avoid gluten, this includes people with a medically diagnosed wheat allergy, Celiac disease, possibly suffers of MS and Parkinson’s disease, or people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It is this last category that is the most controversial, its consists of individuals who apparently exhibit some symptoms or reactions to gluten but have a negative intestinal biopsy (the standard diagnostic measure), doctors and researchers debate the prevalence of the condition and importance of a gluten-free diet for such persons. There is a growing segment of the population who are now self-diagnosing or adopting a gluten-free diet on advice of some quack just for “general well-being”. Statistically we can be pretty sure at least some of those cases are actual medical issues related to gluten, it is estimated that as many as 85-97% of expected Celiac cases are currently undiagnosed but that still amounts to about <1% of the population in all. In a study by the Hartman Group 93% of gluten-free consumers were not diagnosed celiacs. Estimates of the prevalence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity ranges anywhere from 3%-15%, though some estimates go much higher and other people think that gluten is bad for everyone. For many people there is no clear reason to avoid gluten, often people claim that switching to a gluten-free diet cured their migraines, cleared up their acne (while others report the opposite), gave them more energy, helped them lose weight, or even helped their childs autism(despite lack of good evidence). In these cases we must be quite wary of post hoc reasoning and confirmation bias. Making the transition to gluten-free is a major shift, your diet will likely change so much that it would be hard to pinpoint gluten as the sole variable. It should also be noted that if you believe you may have a gluten or wheat related medical issue it is generally advised that you not adopt a gluten-free diet without seeing a doctor first, as this will make diagnosis much more difficult.

Adopting a gluten-free diet is not simple. It is a serious matter, far more serious than many people often realize, and it’s a lifetime commitment. Gluten is quite common especially in baked goods and pre-packaged foods of all kinds, even medications and cosmetics. Not only do all obvious and hidden sources of gluten need to be avoided but many naturally non-glutenous grain products and even some foods specifically labeled “gluten-free” that might be contaminated with gluten. Some Celiacs have expressed concern that the promotion of a gluten-free diet as a weight loss or health fad can result in loose standards and regulations for gluten-free products, as evidenced by a number of such products that have tested positive for gluten contamination. On the other hand many have expressed thanks over the influx of new and tastier products resulting from increased demand. This certainly is a positive thing and expands available food choices considering studies show that a large percentage of people on a gluten-free diet may be deficient in Vitamin B12, Folate, Riboflavin, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Iron, Fiber, Calcium, and Vitamin D and a gluten-free diet has been linked to a reduction in beneficial intestinal flora. Research recommends a daily multivitamin for those following a gluten-free diet, especially for gluten-free vegans.

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid recently posted a podcast episode on Gluten-free diets, in which he stated “Do an internet search for “gluten free” and you’ll find the term being misused by sellers of organic foods and other products, even vegan products and things sold as “cruelty free”. Gluten is a purely vegetable, vegan substance that is, in every way, organic and all natural. So in many of these cases, the marketing boast “gluten free” exactly contradicts the vendor’s claim of being vegan friendly. If you’re a vegan, products containing gluten should be at the top of your list. It’s an all-natural wheat protein.”

While I agree and gluten (aka seitan) is on the top of my list of favorite vegan protein sources, I think Brian may have misinterpreted the connection between the product being labeled both “gluten-free” and “vegan”. I think the correlation exists for two major reasons. First, people who have one type of food allergy, such as to dairy, are more likely to have another food issue such as an egg allergy or gluten sensitivity. Marketing foods simultaneously as egg-free, dairy-free, organic, and gluten-free simply grabs as many niche markets as possible. The second reason is that people who buy into one fad diet often do so because they are more concerned about food in general and are more likely to further restrict their diet in other ways or bounce from one fad diet to the next. People concerned about genetically modified foods often also prefer organic produce for example and will compound diets, such as raw, gluten-free, gmo-free, organic veganism. Marketing execs know this and label their “health food” products accordingly.

I’m glad there are more gluten-free vegan options out there, some of them such as the new Amy’s vegan Mac & Cheese are amazing! These products will be very helpful if we wish to see more people go vegan but I don’t think we need to convince non-gluten sensitive vegans to completely give up their favorite sources of gluten. Its just not backed by solid evidence and allowing food faddist to create such a strong yet erroneous connection between a gluten-free diet and vegan diet in the public consciousness serves to confuse people and makes veganism appear excessively restrictive. This can deter investigators and make life unnecessarily hard on vegans who fall for the misinformation. I must quote Ginny Messina the VeganRD once again to say “Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it harder for people to go vegan.” We need to be clear about the distinctions between the two diets, veganism is a an ethical response to the problem of speciesism while a gluten-free diet is at best a regrettable medical necessity and at worst a potentially harmful fad.

Further Reading: It’s G-G-G-Gluten! by Dave D


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