If cartoons appearing in The New Yorker magazine are often cited as identifying in a humorous way the foibles of American culture, one in a recent issue touching on the current gluten-free rage proved particularly telling. The cartoon portrays a woman standing on the sidewalk looking into the window of either a restaurant or food store where a sign reads, “Free Gluten.” The implication, it seems, is that a food industry offering so many products without gluten, including those like bread where gluten content had once been a major source of quality, would now have an abundance of gluten to offer to consumers at little or no cost, that is for free. Just how ridiculous that is manages also to spur wonder as to where such a food trend is heading, whether it can continue at the frantic pace of recent months, and whether or not it is a fad that will disappear at some point.
Determining just where or how the anti-gluten movement began is difficult, especially since there has been no new scientific research that would question gluten as a negative across the human diet. For years, people with celiac disease have been recognized as needing not to eat gluten contained in plants like wheat and barley. Current estimates are that one in 133 people in developed nations suffer from celiac disease and thus should exercise care. That tiny number does little to explain the inclination of dietary gurus to suggest to all clients that gluten should be avoided.
These recommendations shock on many counts, none more striking than the way gluten has long been considered a positive natural ingredient in foods made from wheat and many other grains and plants. Gluten, a word itself that admittedly has a less than positive sound, relates to protein content. Dealings in hard winter and spring wheat largely reflect protein levels, the higher the latter is the higher the price.
Like so much besieging of the modern-day food industry stemming from food faddism and quackery, the anti-gluten movement has progressed with a momentum of its own. Recent observations by marketing authorities note that gluten-free foods have moved into the retail mainstream after being niche products meant to satisfy the needs of people with genuine gluten intolerance. One estimate is that nearly 15% of new foods introduced in the United States last year featured a gluten-free claim, with Europe also experiencing a similar popularity among food and beverage manufacturers.
Not only has marketing been directly impacted by gluten-free popularity, but food recipes and manufacturing are being modified to exclude gluten. Since gluten is one of the most “natural” of food ingredients in the grains where it appears, the gluten-free claims often omit any assertion to do with natural. Indeed, the term gluten-free, according to international food standards, may only be used on products that would naturally contain gluten. That is a quite specific limitation that one wonders about the care with which it is being followed. All that aside, though, much work has been done to develop bread and similar products normally rich in gluten to be made without any of this ingredient. It may even be said that gluten-free has become the forerunner of a number of similar claims, such as salt-free, lactose-free and G.M.O.-free, the latter being genetically-modified organisms.
While acknowledging the seriousness of gluten intolerance among a small part of the population, it is apparent that the current environment has encouraged a marked expansion in research intended to define how certain foods or food ingredients cause specific human ailments. That is very different from past scientific work that emphasized the importance of certain foods to good health at various stages of human development. Both of these approaches have positives and negatives for different sectors of the food industry. Yes, the “free gluten” cartoon may be funny, but the reality of this situation is rapidly becoming far from amusing.