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Gluten Intolerance Debunked, Gluten-Free Marketing Thrives

Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University in Australia, published research in 2011 that gave credence to the condition of non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. Gibson later conducted a more in-depth study on the effects of gluten on the digestive system. This study found no specific response to gluten in participants. In other words, there was no evidence to support gluten intolerance as a condition.

But the gluten-free industry continues to boom, with product sales predicted to reach $15 billion by 2016.

Salt Lake hosted the 2014 National Gluten-Free Expo this week, with vendors and thousands of visitors from around the country.

Individuals at the venue from merchants to doctors and customers had varying perceptions of gluten and gluten intolerance.

“Human beings do not have the enzyme capable of breaking down gluten,” said John Spingola, director of brands for NoGii, a gluten-free health food line.

“I know there can be sensitivities to protein, which is what gluten is, so I think the naysayers are probably misinformed that this is a fad,” said John Claudius, pharmaceutical scientist and father of a proclaimed gluten-sensitive child.

Gluten sensitivity was often confused with wheat and other food allergies. Some claimed removing gluten from the diet could heal conditions from athlete’s foot to eczema.

Anthony Almada, sports nutritionist and CEO of Vitargo Global Sciences, said many companies and consumers are merely riding the gluten-free wave.

“It’s just like many other dietary practices or dietary religions… you find a lot of evangelism, but when you ask for the evidence [they say] ‘Well, it works for me.’ That is not evidence. That is a case study of one that may not be related at all to what they’re asserting,” Almada said.

He likened the gluten-free movement to the Atkins diet, which he claimed faded after a two-year marketing sensation.

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Almada said along with ineffectiveness, the gluten-free diet is hard to maintain because of expense and the pervasiveness of grains as a food staple.

Almada said FODMAPs, or poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates, are a more likely cause of the gastrointestinal distress experienced by those who claim gluten intolerance. Research agrees. When participants consumed a low-FODMAP diet in Gibson’s 2014 study, almost all reported that their symptoms improved.

“Most people will automatically self-diagnose as being gluten-intolerant, yet they don’t know if it’s gluten,” Almada said. “What they do is they remove wheat from the diet and therefore they christen themselves as being gluten-free because they have a problem with wheats. When you ask them, ‘Why don’t you just try barley cereal…,’ [they say] ‘Oh no, that’s okay. I know I’m gluten sensitive,’ but when they actually do try barley cereal they don’t have problems.”

One thing groups at the expo agreed on was that people with celiac disease need to maintain a gluten-free diet, as the body’s response to gluten damages the lining of the small intestines in those with the disease.

Gluten-free marketing measures have expanded food options for those with celiac; however, only 1.8 million Americans suffer with the disorder. A majority of gluten-free products are consumed by those who do not have celiac.

“More than any other event we go to, we find here the greatest percentage of celiacs, but the majority of people that we’ve talked to today are not celiacs, they’re just riding that wave,” Almada said.

The future of the gluten-free phenomenon remains unclear. However, researchers agree that additional studies need to be conducted before definitive conclusions can be drawn about gastrointestinal sensitivities and distress triggers. 

Information updated 10/18/14.