This week it was announced that more and more retailers are stocking gluten-free products. Asda has promised to stock at least 8 core gluten-free products in all stores.
The charity Coeliac UK has been applying pressure, through the ‘Gluten-free Guarantee campaign‘, on behalf of Coeliac suffers, to give them more availability of gluten-free products (especially bread).
Waitrose, Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury’s are also following in Asda’s footsteps.
But as much as supermarket may be looking ethical and worthy by supporting this charity’s campaign, it’s more likely they are jumping on one of the biggest food fads of the last decade. Let’s be honest, there are many food related conditions out there but we don’t see supermarkets addressing these with such zest.
The real problem with gluten is that about 1% of the population (1:133 it is estimated) suffers from ‘Coeliac Disease’ – an autoimmune disease, that affects the digestive process of the small intestine, caused by a reaction of the immune system to gluten. It’s estimated that nearly half a million people who have Coeliac Disease but don’t yet know.
Dermatitis Herpetiformis, which occurs as a rash, is the skin manifestation of Coeliac Disease.
However, a bigger percentage of the population have bought into a belief that gluten is bad and that a gluten-free diet will deliver better health and a better life.
What exactly is gluten?
In one survey (in the US) very few people actually knew, proving how poorly educated many consumers are. Sadly many get their information from poor sources rather than reliable ones – you can blame social media for that.
Gluten (from the Latin gluten, meaning ‘glue’) is a protein composite found in wheat and related grains, including barley and rye (which you find in many baked products). It used to give elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives bread a chewy texture. Gluten is also used to create mock meats for vegetarians and pet foods, as well as in cosmetics, hair products, many other dermatological preparations and vitamin supplements.
Another food fad…
However, it has falling into the trendy alternative eating circle and some people believe that there are health benefits to gluten-free eating, even though there is no published experimental evidence to support such claims. Not that science ever got in the way of a new belief system, because there is a percentage of the population who love to jump on alternative lifestyle bandwagons. And just as many who want to exploit it.
Gluten-free fad diets are popular and endorsed by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Novak Djokovic, Lady Gaga, Miley Ray Cyrus, Jennifer Esposito, Emmy Rossum, Billy Bob Thornton and even Chelsea Clinton.
The book ‘Wheat Belly’, which refers to wheat as a “chronic poison” (how’s that for spin?), became a bestseller in 2011.
It’s been marketed as a way to loose weight, feel healthier, to fight fatigue and give you more energy and even improve your sex drive – yep all the claims you’ll find used by the old snake oil salesmen. Due to its origins in Latin it has also been spun as ‘gluing up your insides’ – a pathetic attempt to demonise it, but for some it works.
It’s estimated that 29% of ‘health conscious’ consumers are trying to reduce gluten – though probably few actually know what it really is. The claim about 29% of consumer doing so is published on the www.glutenfree.com website – so make up your own mind how true it is.
Professional dieticians do not endorse a gluten-free diet as a means to eat healthier or lose weight, though if you are suffering from CD, it will reduce the symptons. However, eating less bread with peanut butter on will certainly help reduce the calories.
These advocates of gluten-free, as the new utopian food life style, can be very evangelistic, though they are very gullible by definition and can easily become victims of exploitation. In many of these markets you will find genuine companies along side the dubious ones. Sadly the world of ethics is a hunting ground for the less than ethical. One diets claims to help autism – though there is no scientific evidence it does.
In America, the home of food and lifestyle fads – fuelled by shallow celebrities, opinionated bloggers, self help books and too many poor journalists driven by ratings not facts, – these fads flourish. It has led to numerous articles and books on a gluten-free life like “Preparing Your Gluten-Free Kitchen,”
“Empowering Clients in Their Gluten-Free Lifestyles” and “The Gluten-Free Guide for Guys.”
In the UK gluten-free market is worth about £175m, and has the highest number of product launches of any food category in the last year.
In the USA sales of gluten-free labelled products rose from $11.5 billion to $23 billion in just four years. Over 1700 new products appeared in one year alone, with over 200m orders for gluten-free products in restaurants, making it one of the biggest food fads of recent times.
General Mills has added 600 such products to its range since 2008, when it first marketed its gluten-free cereal brand, Chex.
On a note of concern, products that have removed natural gluten, like pasta and potato products, are usually less healthy and in some case you don’t want to know what was used to replace it.
The Codex Standard for food labeling allows any product with less than 20ppm of gluten can be labeled as gluten-free. From December this year, new EU regulations requires that any gluten in foods is clearly marked. The rules applies to both packaged foods and loose sold foods, plus catering.
Many countries already require food manufacturers to label products to show they contain gluten, including Brazil and Canada but until now in the UK only cereals need to be labeled, while in the USA it’s not a requirement and in reverse, brands are encourage to label with ‘gluten-free’.
Gluten-free – well it always was wasn’t it?
Some food brands have jumped on the trend for gluten-free by making claims that their products, that never had gluten, are gluten-free. Yoghurt (Chobani), tinned vegetables (Green Giant), sugar, salt, chicken, bacon, fruit and even water (Clara)!
Clara, a Canadian water brand certainly comes across as more hippy than someone trying to rip of gullible consumers. To quote their website, “Our philosophy encompasses the Jainism core belief of self-control. The Water Circle [self control/spirit/non violence/righteous path] is our visualized belief process. Clara can only exist when all elements of this cycle are aligned.”
The ultimate American irony is they have a gluten-free donut, so you can deceive yourself into thinking you are eating something healthy.
So is exploiting fads ethical? Especially when there’s more evidence that a gluten-free lifestyle is less healthy than a normal one. Big brands will always use the defence, “We are simply meeting consumers need and demands.”
But to quote an American politician (talking about big corporate brands exploiting citizens) “We can try to protect citizens from large corporations, but we’ll never be able to protect them from themselves.”