With sales of packaged gluten-free products making over 3 billion dollars in 2010 and expected to make over 5 billion dollars by 2015, some feel the marketing and hype for the gluten-free diet fad has transcended medical need into becoming a cultural phenomenon.
And once again I find myself frustrated with how our low attention span society over-simplifies a serious matter and then polarizes itself between fanatics and skeptics. Somewhere in between you will find a significant part of the public enduring unexplained and undiagnosed celiac disease symptoms.
I will address two separate issues here. First, because of the profit potential in this gluten-free market, I’m seeing a number of companies and products entering the market with questionable motivation. Second, because of the amount of attention brought to the gluten issue in recent years and because of the passion expressed by people going gluten-free, I’m seeing a reaction in the opposite direction; I’m seeing a growing doubt and criticism of the overall gluten phenomenon.
I appreciate having far more products than ever before available for people who need to be gluten-free, and I appreciate how there are a number of misinformed individuals jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. But I worry that the reaction to these two phenomenons may have a chilling effect on the overall quality and integrity of the gluten intolerance cause.
Questioning The Motivation Behind the Marketing
As I watched this market explode during the last five years, I explored the background of some of the new companies entering the gluten-free market. Many of these companies feature backgrounds in marketing and sales, with no history or experience in any field of health. I know about at least one well-promoted supplement targeting the celiac disease market with its origins as a marketing campaign conceived by an experienced sales staff (the product may be decent, but the marketing for it is full of excessive unscientific hype).
In addition, we still don’t have a universal, established and reliable way to certify products as gluten-free or even wheat-free. Some companies are hurrying to create popular junk foods and slap the gluten-free label on them just so they can grab a piece of the massive gluten-free profit pie.
So before your eyes alight when you see gluten-free labeling and you feel a thrill to spot products and supplements targeting people with some degree of gluten sensitivity, question whether a company’s motivation comes from a desire to provide truly beneficial products or a desire to make money off your condition.
The flip-side of all this cynicism, of course, is that those of us who must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet now have many more choices than ever before. I recognize and appreciate the relief of finding more options when you shop or go out to eat. Just be diligent in understanding how many companies don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind, and not everything marked as gluten-free is healthy.
Real Patients Squeezed Between Fanaticism and Skepticism
In recent years I observed a duel-edged phenomenon arise, where the massive growth of the gluten-free diet and the marketing hype surrounding it triggered two polarized groups. First we have fanatics, many of whom are self-diagnosed, who now see gluten as the root of all health problems, and then we have the skeptics who roll their eyes at all the gluten-free blogs and gluten-free marketing hype, quick to point out how many people are self-diagnosed and also quick to point out the lack of science to support the perspective of this complex protein composite being universally toxic.
Both sides have legitimate concerns, but the discussion among even mainstream news sites creates a simplified, polarized perspective of a serious health matter.
For example, on Time magazine’s website, they recently ran the following story:
While a greater understanding may exist behind that short story, many mainstream viewers may come away with the notion that this specialized dietary restriction is just another diet craze soon to pass. It leaves out the frightening fact that it takes, on average, 5.8 years after a patient goes to his or her doctor to discuss celiac disease symptoms until those symptoms are accurately diagnosed, or the cold, hard fact that most celiacs are still undiagnosed, or that undiagnosed celiac disease greatly increases your chance of developing serious, life-threatening cancers.
It is true that all current, verifiable scientific evidence indicates a majority of people can consume gluten safely. Unfortunately, that reality may both marginalize the still-significant population that can’t consume it safely and it elicits a reactionary response from the anti-gluten crowd. This also suggests a lack of appreciation for the different forms of problems under the gluten intolerance umbrella, like gluten ataxia or dermatitis herpetiformis.
I can also corroborate from personal experience how a large percentage of the gluten-free population tends to be self-diagnosed, which is an unfortunate phenomenon borne by the medical community’s remarkable and well-documented ability to miss so many diagnoses of celiac disease. With the confusing terms like gluten allergy symptoms and a general misunderstanding of gluten itself (see What Is Gluten?), misunderstanding and over-simplification seems to be the rule of the game.
Self-diagnosis can be dangerous or at least troublesome, and many people do seem to be jumping on a bit of a gluten-free bandwagon despite little understanding of the gluten phenomenon or their own conditions.
But the skepticism this instills often ignores the real statistical trends, which strongly suggest gluten’s overall possible toxicity, and this skepticism may cause both patients and doctors to withhold action or diagnosis for a condition that is already terribly under-diagnosed.
The Inevitable Fire From Holding Fast to the Middle Ground
Despite my being someone with a real, diagnosed case of celiac disease and my being an ardent supporter of gluten intolerance awareness, I will likely come under fire for just trying to aim a reasonable eye on the big picture and our current scientific reality.
Marketing hype will do that. It seems to polarize by default. The billion dollar spending and advertising to exploit that spending potential whips the anti-gluten crowd into a fanatical froth, while the skeptics muster greater stubbornness and criticism because of the severity of the fanaticism they face.
It’s all frustrating to me because behind the gluten-free diet fad we are dealing with real medical issues with real people enduring real, life-long suffering, yet it all becomes sidetracked for this polarized battle between fanatics and skeptics.