The Gluten-Free Fad and the Logical ‘Or’

Has the gluten-free fad helped or hurt those who are gluten-free as a medical treatment? There are convincing arguments for both sides. But arguments require logic, and the logical “or” is inclusive (“or” can mean “both”). Perhaps it is the case that the fad has both helped and hurt. Here are a few ways the gluten-free fad seems to have both helped and hurt.

Helped: Those in the food service industry generally know what gluten is these days, so when someone with celiac says, “I’m gluten-free,” the statement is met with more of an understanding than it has been in the past. (Remember when you didn’t know what gluten was? I remember when I didn’t, and it wasn’t unconscionably long ago.)

Hurt: On the other hand, some of those in the food service industry who now know what gluten is thanks to its mainstream qualities are tired of hearing about gluten. So when someone with celiac says, “I’m gluten-free,” the statement may indeed be met with understanding, plus a side of eye roll.

The eye roll we can deal with if it means our food is being handled properly. But if the eye roll is a manifestation of the eye rollers’ thoughts, and those thoughts are something along the lines of, “Great, another gluten-free faddist,” there is a danger that the eye roll means the condition won’t be taken as seriously.

Helped: Let’s face it — what’s popular gets more attention. More people are talking about celiac disease in light of gluten’s celebrity status. And the more people talk about it, the more people think about it, and hopefully more people get tested for celiac disease.

You can’t always treat things you aren’t aware of, so the more awareness there is about celiac (even if it’s a byproduct of the gluten-free fad), the better the chances are that people will get tested and treated.

Hurt: More attention, however, doesn’t always mean positive attention. There are people with large platforms who talk about the gluten-free diet, and the disseminated information might not always be accurate.

For example, a celebrity with a large following might state that, “If you don’t have celiac disease, you don’t need to be gluten-free.” She might have meant to imply that the gluten-free diet isn’t healthy for everyone. But what she said isn’t accurate (people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), etc.), and her inaccurate statement might be heard by millions of people — which might add fuel to gluten-free intolerance regardless of the celebrity’s intention.

Even some people with celiac disease scoff at those with NCGS or a gluten-intolerance/sensitivity, as if it’s somehow “less than” because it’s not celiac disease. Perhaps that stems from the constant need for those with celiac to defend/explain/protect the importance of their gluten-free eating, or annoyance at the rampant misconceptions about celiac disease. But if someone is sensitive to gluten and doesn’t need to carefully monitor cross-contamination, it doesn’t mean that person has it any easier — it means they have it different.

Helped: Do you think General Mills would be releasing gluten-free Lucky Charms if there weren’t enough people following the gluten-free diet? Even if you don’t eat Lucky Charms, think about how good gluten-free foods have gotten over the years. More and more brands are coming out with gluten-free foods, healthier gluten-free foods, and more delicious gluten-free foods. If there weren’t such a huge demand for gluten-free products, there would be less to choose from.

What happens when the fad ends? It’s hard to imagine that General Mills would invest so much time and money into making their products gluten-free (they’re not just coming out with gluten-free versions…the version will be gluten-free) if it weren’t here to stay. Even when the fad ends, there will be people who need to eat gluten-free, and the fact that companies like General Mills acknowledge the lasting need for gluten-free food indicates that gluten-free eating is more than just a passing fad.

Hurt: So, are companies like General Mills trying to capitalize on the gluten-free fad? Is it an eye-roll-inducing move to introduce gluten-free Cheerios, or does it give credibility to gluten-free? What happens to smaller companies that produce gluten-free foods that have been around since the beginning?

The “bigger” gluten gets, the more of a target it becomes. It will become more of a target of pharmaceutical companies, food companies, anyone who can think of a way to make money based on the fact that so many people require gluten-free food. Will a fiscal focus help or hurt (or both!) celiac disease researchers? Will a bigger pond dilute the meaning of the term “gluten-free?” There are already restaurants that claim items are “gluten-free,” but when pressed, will continue with, “but not recommended for celiacs.”

Because of the gluten-free fad, there is more awareness about celiac disease, and there are more and better gluten-free options. Borne from the fad are also dangerous misconceptions about gluten and celiac disease, as well as resistance to and dismissal of the term “gluten-free,” which can translate to carelessness toward a medical treatment. So, has the gluten-free fad helped or hurt?

– Kaitlin Puccio