Go to your nearest grocery store and most of them now have a section for ‘gluten-free’ products. In India, the gluten debate is hotting up, quite literally, since gluten-free food has started appearing on restaurant menus as well. It’s even found on cosmetics labels. The gluten-free market is exploding. The question being asked is whether it is all marketing hype and whether it is a risky fad or a healthy diet? Mintel, a market research company, estimated that the sale of gluten-free products were expected to total $10.5 billion in 2014, estimated to touch more than $15 billion in annual sales in 2016. In a recent Time magazine article, entitled Why We’re Wasting Billions on Gluten-Free Foods, business writer Martha C White puzzled over this seemingly baseless trend, stating, “As food fads go, though, this one’s not only enormous: It’s enormously expensive—and many of us paying a premium to avoid gluten are doing so without any legitimate medical reason.” Only a miniscule portion of the global population suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten consumption. An equally small minority suffer from wheat allergy.
However, the explosion in gluten-free products and the size of the market suggests that gluten, a protein found in wheat as well as barley, rye and related products, is widely misunderstood, with millions of people maintaining a gluten-free diet simply as a desire to remain trendy. If, in fact, only a small fraction of the global population have a medical condition exacerbated by gluten consumption, what explains the overwhelming traction of the gluten-free movement? On the Net, there are over 7.5 million websites and posts on gluten, many with testimonials of miraculous improvements following the adoption of a gluten-free diet in a wide range of medical issues ranging from headaches, joint pain, skin disorders, epilepsy and depression to insomnia and ADHD. If we are to believe that only a small number of us should avoid gluten, does that suggest that the widespread dietary change is simply a placebo effect? This identification of vague, but widespread, symptoms with a single widely-consumed culprit has led to an epidemic of self-diagnosed gluten intolerance, going far beyond those whose sensitivities have been accepted by doctors. Moreover, as the New Scientist asked in a recent article, is it plausible that something that has been a staple food for centuries should suddenly turn out to be so bad for so many? Estimates suggest that only around one in 10 people would benefit from cutting wheat out of their diet to some degree. Indeed, as the article noted, being careful of what you eat—and cutting back on white bread, cake and beer (all containing gluten)—will pay dividends whatever your diet. The magazine concluded by saying, “All told, gluten-free diets look like yet another passing fad. Once the craze fades, something else will take its place because the popularity of such diets has more to do with our psychology than our physiology. We have a tendency to copy high-status individuals, we are prone to magical thinking (such as the notion that one ingredient is the cause of all our woes) and often assume that what is natural is inherently good. The appeal of gluten-free has drawn strength from all three. The first, about high-status individuals, refers to the world’s number one tennis player, Novak Djokovic. In 2010, his nutritionist had diagnosed him as ‘gluten intolerant’ and cut wheat from his diet. Djokovic says he instantly felt fresher, sharper and more energetic, and recommended that everybody give it a go. Millions probably did whether they needed to or not.