Being diagnosed with Celiac disease was both the best thing that’s ever happened to me and the worst.
On one hand, I finally had an explanation for all the mystery symptoms that had plagued me for as long as I could remember: the headaches, the bloating, the constant fatigue, the difficulty focusing, and even the bald patches that would appear on my scalp from time to time.
On the other, I was absolutely terrified. The list of newly forbidden foods grew longer and longer, until I began questioning if I’d ever be able to eat anything again without making myself sick.
My diagnosis came right around the height of the gluten-free fad diet boom, with celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian publicly declaring their pledges of allegiance to the war on wheat. Soon, men and women across America were turning to the gluten-free diet in masses, as a South Beach-style method of dropping a few pounds.
This led to an exponential increase in demand for wheat-alternative options on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. And thus, the gluten-free aisle was born.
Celiac disease is certainly on the rise; a Mayo Clinic study shows that a person is 4.5 times more likely to test positive now than they might have been in 1950. However, Celiac disease still only affects about 1% of the population, with an additional immeasurable portion affected by what experts call non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
These numbers do not nearly account for the quarter of Americans who are now purchasing gluten-free products, 65% of whom doing so because they believe these products are healthier. This points to a pretty big issue of misinformation and false advertising in an attempt to turn Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity into a consumer opportunity instead of a legitimate medical problem.
Researchers seem unable to agree on the size of the gluten-free market, with estimates ranging anywhere between $490 million and $10.5 billion depending on who you ask. The one thing experts can generally agree on is that the market is growing: we’re expected to see a 40-50% increase in products available by 2016. Baked goods giants like General Mills are even jumping on the bandwagon, according to the New York Times, sending representatives to gluten-free conventions in an effort to push their Celiac-safe versions of granola bars and cream of mushroom soup.
Imagine my delight when I discovered this wide expanse of products available at my fingertips. With gluten-free as the latest marketing fad, I could stroll down any grocery store aisle and find something that was labeled for me. I became a food shopaholic, and anything with a GF label was game: breads, crackers, pastas, cake and muffin mixes, you name it. I felt empowered by the ability to bypass my dietary restrictions and still regularly enjoy my favorite treats.
But the excitement didn’t last long. A few weeks into my gluten-free diet, while many of my symptoms had improved, I still felt lethargic most of the time and had even gained several pounds. That’s when I started taking a closer look at labels—and learned a disappointing truth.
Let’s take sandwich bread as an example. Pepperidge Farm 100% Whole Wheat Bread is a fairly standard wheat-inclusive (non-gluten-free) option. Each slice contains about 120 calories, with 20 of those coming from fat. It also has 0g cholesterol and 150mg sodium. Whole Foods Gluten Free Prairie Bread is one of the more popular gluten-free sandwich breads and stands at a comparable 150 calories. However, 40 of those calories come from fat and each slice contains 40mg cholesterol and 230mg sodium. That’s double the fat of the “normal” sandwich bread, not to mention 13% and 10% of your recommended daily cholesterol and sodium intakes, respectively—just from a single slice of bread!
Similar trends occur across other gluten-free products, with sugar, fat, sodium, and cholesterol levels rising drastically from wheat-inclusive brands.
Our problem becomes even more complex when we examine the gluten-free label and what makes a product eligible to receive it. What is the definition of gluten-free? If your answer is something along the lines of “containing no gluten,” then unfortunately you’re wrong—at least, according to the FDA. Official guidelines (which shockingly just went into effect on August 5, 2014) state that a gluten-free product must contain no more than 20ppm, but do not specify what methods a business must use to test their products.
This low amount is safe for most people with gluten-related illnesses, but not all. Products that have been certified by private organizations often are required to contain lower amounts and therefore tend to be safer; About Health recommends the Celiac Sprue Association, which sets the certification cutoff at 5ppm.
Upon these realizations, I started making more educated choices. Instead of replacing the wheat in my life with prepackaged substitutes, I eliminated these types of foods entirely. Instead of using boxed gluten-free pancake mix, for instance, I looked for recipes I could easily do myself; two eggs and a banana make an equally tasty pancake batter when mashed together. I focused more on taking my own fresh ingredients to create healthy, delicious meals and less on trying to fill the blueberry muffin-shaped hole in my life with a cardboard box. (Round hole, square peg.)
That’s when the magic started happening. I felt amazing, energetic, clear-headed, and my stomachaches went away. Yes, I lost weight as well, but that was just a side effect compared to how much my life had changed. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the occasional gluten-free hamburger bun, but most of my carbohydrates and starches now come from naturally wheatless sources like rice and potatoes. I haven’t looked back.
It’s easy to fall prey to the gluten-free product fad like I did. This points to a big trend in the food industry: marketers are willing to capitalize on any trend in order to make more money. But that just proves that it’s important to look beyond the pretty packaging, and to really read the labels.
And beyond the gluten-free fad, if we want to change the industry, we have to support companies that provide honest, explicit labels. Holding all marketers, ad companies, and corporations to a higher standard is how we build a better, safer industry.
Lisa Bernardi is a marketing professional and writer living in Chicago, IL. A self-identified third culture kid, she has inhabited three countries, which puts her somewhere between trilingual on her best days and verbally confused on her worst. Her lifelong goal is to finally put all of her world adventures into a book that someone might actually want to read.