Amid an era where the modern food industry has added both gluten-free Girl Scout cookies and gluten-free Pizza Hut pizza to its offerings, you’d quite literally have to have been “living under a rock” for the past 12 months to not have heard that ubiquitous “G” word. The word uninterestingly denotates a protein found in wheat and related grains, composed of two storage components: glutenin and gliadin. The some-what recent debate initiated by this single protein has nutrition experts, doctors of all specialties, and United States food consumers alike questioning its potential malignancy – or benevolence.
Before continuing discussion, I want to let it be known: a gluten-free diet is a proven treatment for those diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy. The real heat of the debate stems from questions concerning whether dietary gluten, found in all common wheat products (breads, barley, rye, etc.), plays a role in conditions not typically linked to wheat. Can a gluten-free diet aid in weight loss? Does a life time of gluten consumption result in irreversible brain damage? Can removal of gluten from the diet actually end up being harmful?
There is also debate over the debate. It asks the question: is the entire gluten phenomenon simply a marketing ploy? A scheme indicative of money-hungry food industry execs, eager to manipulate the minimal knowledge of a sea of recently health-obsessed consumers?
As a sixth-semester nutrition student at Penn State, I’ve heard my fair share of professor opinions on gluten. However, the debate extends well beyond the food experts here at Penn State.
Just a Trend? Just a Marketing Ploy?
As one would suspect, an infinite number of New York Times writers have pounced at the opportunity to share their thoughts on the topic. In one article from February 2014, “A Big Bet on Gluten”, author Stephanie Strom features conversations with several food industry executives. Their quotes confirm their mutual opinion on the gluten-free phenomenon: whether or not people are knowledgeable on the technicalities of gluten-free health benefits, its what’s trendy in the world of food consumers, and it is the right place for executives to invest their money. Summarizing the almost identical thoughts of each featured executive is the quote from vice president for consumer strategy and insights at Daymon Worldwide, Virginia Morris:
“There are truly people out there who need gluten-free foods for health reasons, but they are not the majority of consumers who are driving this market. The reason I do believe this has legs is that it ties into this whole naked and ‘free from’ trend. I think we as a country and as a globe will continue to be concerned about what’s going into our food supply.”
To bring to life the large figures food executives are interested in, the article also states that the annual sales of gluten-free food products are to projected to reach $15 billion in 2016! This should surely have you questioning whether the promotion of all things “gluten-free” is nothing but a marketing scheme.
Does the Scientific Evidence Exist?
This debate is more than the opinions of New York Times writers and food company executives. Its foundations have made way to countless publications in respected academic journals. In a September 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, authors of “Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population?” analyze many aspects of the debate. Gaessar and Angadi conclude that, while gluten-free diets prove beneficial for those with celiac disease, there is not sufficient scientific proof that a gluten-free diet is an effective weight loss strategy, or effective in the treatment of any wheat-related intolerance aside from celiac (i.e. gluten sensitivity). They also suggest findings that a gluten-free diet may have negative implications for both general health and weight status…interesting!
Gluten as an Evil Entity?
While Gaessar and Angadi conclude by refuting the necessity of “gluten-free”, there are a number of well-known doctors – from cardiologists to neurologists – who insist that gluten is a purely evil dietary entity.
Dr. William Davis is a well-known cardiologist from Milwaukee, and author of the 2011 New York Times Best Seller: Wheat Belly. Davis strongly believes in gluten-and wheat-free practices – he even refers to wheat as a “perfect, chronic poison”…intense! Davis provides some authentic insight on the gluten debate. He argues that the modern genetic modification of wheat is what makes its products so detrimental to our health. He truly believes from obesity, to arthritis, to schizophrenia – modern wheat products are at the root of it all! While I’m not sure I totally buy into what he’s saying, he has some interesting apparent “success stories” about wheat-free healing power.
Dr. David Perlmutter is a neurologist from Florida, and, like Davis is the author of an anti-gluten New York Times Best Seller. Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers, was released and 2013 and, if you can’t tell from the title, makes some serious claims about gluten’s effect on brain health. Dementia, anxiety, depression – you name it – Perlmutter claims wheat, gluten, and their effect on blood sugars is the cause. The Atlantic article, “This is Your Brain on Gluten”, features a conversation with Perlmutter, in which his general thoughts on the topic are summarized as follows: “The biggest issue by far is that carbohydrates are absolutely at the cornerstone of all of our major degenerative conditions. That includes things like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and even cancers. What we know is that even mild elevations in blood sugar are strongly related to developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
There are so many factors that contribute to people’s conflicting opinions – even whether or not certain foods should be considered gluten-free. As an aspiring dietitian – someone aiming for a profession in counseling people on what to eat – this debate definitely requires my continued attention. Does sufficient data exist to prove gluten’s harm to an otherwise healthy individual? The scientists have spoken, they’re arguing, and I’m prepared to look more into it!
Even such an intense debate has room for comic relief. Watch below as Jimmy Kimmel joins in on the gluten discussion…and embarrasses some people in the process!
More hilarity ensues on Jimmy Kimmel’s official YouTube page.