Allergens Part III – Is Gluten Free Food Health Food?

Warning, explicit video content: End of the World - What a gluten is

To round out our discussion of food sensitivities, I want to focus on gluten, but this applies to sulfites and other trendy food insensitivity foods that have taken cultural significance.

The clip from the movie End of The World is for me one of the most accurate depictions of the average understanding of gluten specifically, and of food safety in general. 

For a good definition of gluten, check out any dictionary or wikipedia.

Also, here’s a nice Washington Post gluten free article, which delves into the issues of people who choose to avoid gluten (shout out to Amy Neiwirth, who is very unexpectedly top billed in the article and was always very nice to me in high school health class many years ago).

For us, let’s assume you the reader have at least a passing understanding of grain to identify the difference between allergic reactions and gluten incompatibility. Although gluten insensitivity is not a protein-based reaction like allergic reactions are, gluten and allergens (and lactose intolerance) are linked by the fact that the human body in a percentage of the population cannot process or will not process each and great discomfort or life threatening reactions may ensue. 

The changes to the American consciousness and diet in the last decade with the heavy marketing of the gluten-free life style has been a double edged sword. Much like the meat heavy Adkins craze twenty years ago and the paleo-diet that is petering out as I write this, the fashionable trends of dieting are always based on some level of truth in food, are interesting to consider, and are ultimately infuriating once the marketers and hucksters get their arms wrapped around it. In the end, all of the diet trends as cultural phenomenon will do more damage than good, both to the individual eater, and to society at large.

Part of my deep frustration with the trend of gluten free in our culture is that it echoes the anti-vaccination movement in which a nebulous and misunderstood issue becomes conspiratorial. The anti-vaccine thing is way, way worse because of the ludicrous amounts of danger from preventable diseases all of us face due to an unhealthy rejection of objective science by our misinformed and overly paranoid fellow citizens. But like the anti-vaccines movements consciousness-raising of a illegitimate issue, gluten free takes a serious issue for a tiny fraction of the population and conflates it to a health issue for everyone, which it is not.

On the positive side, it is great that people are more aware of gluten intolerance, and for those who struggle with undiagnosed sensitivities, finding relief is a wonderful outcome. That more and more restaurants and manufacturers have taken the step of labeling items as gluten free makes it easier for customers who need to avoid gluten to be properly informed. With that aside, the prevalence of gluten free advertisements on products like dried fruit, eggs, popcorn, salsa and other items that in no way contain (and have never contained) wheat, barley, rye or triticale reveals the absurdity with which the gluten-free movement has reached epic fad proportions. 

It is hard to blame the potato chip retailer for slapping a gluten free claim on a label of potato chips, or a restaurant for listing an omelet as gluten free. Whatever advertising benefit of making a gluten free statement is virtually cost free, and it is very easy to back up the gluten free claim on the bag or menu with the fact that potatoes or eggs are not a source of gluten. But from a food safety standpoint, it is deeply concerning that gluten free occupies a space in our culture that implies healthy or safety in and of itself, to the point where it is held up of proof of health in an otherwise unhealthy food. That bag of potato chips is not good for you. The large amounts of processed oil, salt, sugar and chemical additives are not rendered safe by the lack of specific grain ingredients that by all likelihood negatively affects 1-3% of the population (whereas the ingredients in the potato chips negatively affect 100% of those who eat them).

For processed food manufacturers, keeping track of gluten in the production system is often a huge headache. Of the big eight allergens discussed in my previous allergen posts, only wheat is listed as an allergen. Because barley, rye and triticale are not labeled as allergens, it is not mandatory to clearly identify their presence in ingredients. As a result, food safety compliance teams must rely on small print ingredient decks to keep track of gluten. For those readers who have ever managed compound ingredients (premade blends that are added during production), tracking down gluten sources requires some serious investigative skills and focus, which is labor intensive. The fact that gluten free statements can trigger a food recall (I’m not aware of this ever happening, but it could and probably will at some point) makes it a real food safety issue for manufacturers.

Managing production schedules to prevent allergen contamination alone is very complicated and time sensitive. Adding gluten cross contamination prevention to the mix takes the confusion and complication to a whole other level. The simple way to do cross contamination prevention is to run grain-containing items after non-grain items, but any scheduler will tell you that it is much easier said than done, especially for factories that run more than a dozen different production items regularly.

In the end, I try always to be on the side of protecting consumers and I am happy that those who need to avoid foods that make them uncomfortable or ill can do so with accurate information and labeling. I do not have any concerns with consumers avoiding gluten sources for any reason they so choose, and support conscientious eating. But I do have animosity towards marketers and retailers that rely on gluten free as a stand in for healthy. Much like with the anti-vaccine issue, I am sympathetic to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children (even as they are an extreme danger to us all). I at least get the desire to protect themselves much as I completely reject their decisions. It is the misinformation peddlers, those that profit from money and attention by preying on the insecurities of others that get my ire up.

The choice to avoid gluten is a fine choice for anyone who makes it. But beware anyone that tells you it will have significant health benefits to you unless your body specifically rejects it. Beware the snake oil.