Where did the Fear of Gluten Come From?
July 27, 2008 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Why is gluten so evil now, when it wasn't a few years ago?

I went to the local whole foods coop to buy a pizza crust recently and they only had gluten free crusts, which turned out to be, to this wheat-eater, almost inedible. A few years ago gluten free was a complete rarity, now it's everywhere. How and why did gluten get so evil so fast? Is the gluten allergy on a rampage?
posted by Xurando to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There has been a rise in the rate of debilitating allergies (including food allergies) in the last couple of decades and no one knows why. (This might be the reason.)

However, it's also an example of a food fad. Those come and go.
posted by Class Goat at 12:10 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Celiac disease is quite real, and for sufferers, gluten has always been "evil". But many of the products you see in a "natural foods" co-op have always been marketed to people who are willing to pay extra for the latest food trends, for health benefits they will never realize because their body chemistry is unaffected either way.

Many people feeding the increase in GF product availability may be self-diagnosing, and I suspect the backlash against wheat is an offshoot of the anti-carb craze of the previous few years. That said, I think it's great that there is clearer labeling of what foods contain wheat, because it makes our grocery shopping much safer and easier.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:15 PM on July 27, 2008

I don't think it's really a fad. I don't know anyone who avoids gluten unless they have to.

From what I understand, celiac disease has been greatly under-diagnosed until recent years. It's estimated that about 1% of the population has a gluten intolerance, and a ton of these people are just now realizing that gluten has been causing their health problems for years or even decades. Health food companies are trying to cater to them by offering gluten-free alternatives to some of the foods we're all used to (pizza, bread, baked goods, etc). Although you're right, they usually taste like cardboard or worse.
posted by arianell at 12:20 PM on July 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

It goes beyond food trends -- major grocery stores cater to the widest group of people they can, which unfortunately excludes those with food allergies (for the most part). There simply aren't too many wheat alternatives in big stores, so the smaller ones offer it because they already have the infrastructure to handle niche items. One of my coworkers is allergic to gluten and relies heavily on Trader Joe's (e.g. quinoa and their Puffins cereal) for her food needs.
posted by spiderskull at 12:22 PM on July 27, 2008

Increased awareness has led to increased diagnosis. Much of what used to get written off as "IBS" is now known to be celiac disease, which is a very real thing. I doubt it's tied to the low-carb thing, as GF products contain as much carbohydrate (if not more) as conventional wheat products.

Now if only fructose and sucrose intolerance would get a little press, that would be a great thing. But I digress...
posted by chez shoes at 12:22 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went to the local whole foods coop to buy a pizza crust recently and they only had gluten free crusts, which turned out to be, to this wheat-eater, almost inedible.

Not to derail, but GF foods do not need to be inedible, and it's quite shameful that the people putting out GF stuff on the shelf aren't more conscientious. I think it comes down to the price premium that is paid at co-op's — shoppers have been taught to equate tasteless and expensive with healthy, and that's a genuine shame.

The pizza crust recipe in Bette Hagman's Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread makes a great crust and uses much less butter than the pre-mixed kits from the store. Add a little cheddar cheese and crumbled, dried basil and I find it is almost as good as regular pizza, really.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:32 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

chez shoes: I doubt it's tied to the low-carb thing, as GF products contain as much carbohydrate (if not more) as conventional wheat products.

Perhaps, though, as no-carb people started to eat less or no wheat (et al.), the previously unlucky and underdiagnosed subset realized that it was gluten making them sickly all along.
posted by astrochimp at 12:36 PM on July 27, 2008

Parents of autistic children are claiming some success (at alleviating symptoms of autism) with a wheat free diet. And manufacturers are getting away with charging 3X price for "wheat free". So there you go.

Don't ask me why there are so many more autistic children these days.
posted by cda at 12:48 PM on July 27, 2008

I seen several claims (but don't have references) that wheat has either been bred or engineered to increase gluten production, and that we're getting substantially more gluten in our diet now than 10 years ago. That might be an interesting angle on the problem to pursue.
posted by dws at 1:03 PM on July 27, 2008

interesting, I didn't know about the connection of wheat to autism... Somehow I just know that all of these allergies and diseases have their conception in some lab at Monsanto and the agri/pharma complex.
posted by any major dude at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2008

It's kind of a confluence.

1. Rise in food allergies and/or increased medical awareness of celiac (more and more patients ask for the test)
2. Infiltration of gluten-free cooking into gastronomy with authors like Shauna James Ahern gaining mainstream popularity (I read her wonderful blog and I'm not Celiac)
3. Popular diets demonizing grains like Atkins, raw veganism (Oprah's recent diet was not raw, but it was gluten-free vegan and some raw vegans do eat sprouted grains), and Paleo diets which emphasize that gluten is not a food humans evolved with and therefore it might cause problems from autism to obesity.

Up next in the demonization box? I predict soy.
posted by melissam at 1:18 PM on July 27, 2008

In the 1938 film "The Women" Norma Shearer's character offers her friends muffins saying, "They're gluten free!". So, it's not just a recent thing.
posted by annathea at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

Because there's a lucrative niche market for gluten-free products so manufacturers are going to manufacture them.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:19 PM on July 27, 2008

Xurando, you may wish to learn about celiac disease at www.celiac.nih.gov. Gluten is not evil for people who can tolerate it, but for people with celiac disease or other kinds of wheat allergies, it is really nasty.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:34 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two (maybe three) years ago, Dr. Phil's wife hijacked one of his shows to talk about why she's so healthy, and said that she cut gluten out of her diet completely because it was the evil that caused wrinkles and muscle flabbiness and fatigue. Then she showed how she makes "fried chicken" by rolling it in oatmeal and baking it in the oven.
posted by phunniemee at 4:05 PM on July 27, 2008

From the wiki, this interesting fact about predisposition to celiac disease:

People of African, Japanese and Chinese descent are rarely diagnosed ...
posted by storybored at 6:48 PM on July 27, 2008

Celiac is indeed a very real problem; gluten intolerance is more problematic. I was diagnosed with various intolerances (gluten, soy, dairy, garlic) by a doctor who deeply believed in food intolerances (including gluten, as diagnosed by an ELISA test). She wanted me on a total elimination diet - even one of my vitamin supplements, which had garlic, was to go. This doctor was more, ah, alternative - for example, she does a test of some sort for "inflammation" (of what, I'm not sure) for example. My mother now has a very low level of "inflammation" and is ecstatic. My regular allergy doctor performed a blood test for celiac disease which came back negative, and dismissed the ELISA test results, saying that the link between allergy/ intolerance and the Ig (G? I get them confused) factor that ELISA measures has not been adequately tested clinically.
As a waitress, I can offer anecdotal evidence that concerns about gluten have become more popular in the last 3-4 years. They tend to be middle-aged white women (like my mom), and so part of me questions whether gluten intolerance has indeed become a rather 'faddish' illness.
(I did reduce my bread/ pasta consumption after the ELISA test; it's probably for the better. I tried a recommended brown rice pasta, which was just awful and mushy and bleg. I decided I'd rather not have pasta at all than that. While I can't speak for home-made gluten-free products, IMO the gluten-free replacement foods like bread and pasta that I found at the store just weren't good. It's better to just have something else, I found. )
posted by queseyo at 9:20 PM on July 27, 2008

You also have to remember that many people self diagnose. I'm certainly not gluten intolerant but if I eat toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for supper, I'll tend to feel bloated. Yet I know quite a few people who, having experienced this, will happily tell me they're gluten intolerant.
posted by rhymer at 2:47 AM on July 28, 2008

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