Gluten: The Protein, The Trend, The Choice

In the five years since her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, Bailey Brislin can attest to the increase of gluten’s appearance in public discourse and on social media. A poll I conducted asking 34 random participants various questions about gluten revealed a lot about public opinion and knowledge surrounding the gluten-free trend. Collectively, it seems like these are the two opposing misconceptions about gluten:

  1. Gluten is an unhealthy component of food and should be avoided by everyone
  2. The gluten-free diet is entirely a conspiracy; no one should have to avoid gluten

Although a strong majority of the participants did not actually follow a gluten-free diet themselves, 90% knew at least one other person who did. Two-thirds of these people known to be gluten-free either had celiac disease or another gluten intolerance. Other participants listed their gluten-free friends as simply following the fad or trying “to be healthy.”

“I think people who are gluten free by choice with no medical need for it just don’t understand the science of gluten very well.” Becky Turner, a senior biology major at UNC-Chapel Hill, has often pondered with me the cause behind the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet. “Your diet is your choice, but uninformed choices are causing those who don’t have a choice to suffer from the subsequent bad reputation of being gluten-free.”

Although true gluten-free individuals like Brislin may receive criticism from a few skeptics, at least the growing trend in the gluten-free diet is increasing the number of gluten-free products on grocery shelves. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined “gluten-free” as products containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten (FDA, allergens). However, since this labeling is voluntary, there has been an increase of marketing products as “gluten-free” even though their contents have always been naturally absent of gluten (example: hummus).

Rebecca Houser, a weight-loss consultant with a degree in nutrition science from North Carolina State University, predicts the future of the gluten-free trend: “Unless you have an actual sensitivity to gluten, the hype will die down and we will move on to the next fad diet.”

So, after all of this clarification on what gluten is and who is truly impacted by it, how do we ascertain how the craze began? Ultimately, the beginning of the focus on gluten when talking about nutrition cannot be pinpointed to one study or one patient. However, it is possible and reasonable to think that technology and research have enhanced in the past decade to the point where disorders like celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis are better understood. I hypothesize that it is this increased understanding that has led to a new light being shined upon gluten as a harmful product. When scientists were able to pinpoint gluten as a cause of illness, people with celiac disease and other gluten intolerance disorders begin to eat gluten-free as instructed by their doctors. Friends and family who heard about their lifestyle change may not have connected the aversion to gluten to become healthier with a unique medical condition. Hence, the association of “gluten” with “unhealthy.”

This, my friends, is an example of a classic health misconception. The bigger picture lesson here: ask why. If someone (not a doctor) tells you gluten is bad, do not take their word for it. Do the research yourself – be informed! And if eliminating gluten from your diet makes you feel better, that’s great! Shrug off any criticism. You know how you feel better than anyone else.

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