Gluten-free: Way to Be?

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Posted on November 2, 2015, at 5:40 p.m.
by Kristen Ellis.

In our society’s long-standing battle against seemingly harmless food groups, gluten is the new enemy. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus swear by gluten-free dieting, and a walk down the grocery store aisle reveals everything from cookies to bread to even candy proudly stamped with the gluten-free seal.

Photo Courtesy of Michael Mandiberg | Flickr
Photo Courtesy of Michael Mandiberg | Flickr

Only one in 133 people is currently affected by celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, an autoimmune condition that requires the elimination of gluten from one’s diet (though around 18 million suffer from various ranges of gluten intolerance). Still, compare that with the current U.S. population of about 319 million, and researchers estimate that only one percent suffers from celiac disease, with that number rising just a few percentage points to include all ranges of gluten intolerance.

Turns out, everyone wants a piece of the gluten-free pie — but why? Is it actually beneficial to our health to eliminate a food component so prevalent in our diets? Also, what role do marketers play to ensure anti-gluten campaigns remain ethical and that their consumers are fully informed?

History of gluten-free
“Gluten intolerances and allergies (the allergy being referred to as celiac disease) became medically prevalent in the late 1800s with the treatment being generally the same as it is today — avoid those foods that contain gluten and cause symptoms,” said Carly Bragg, RDN, LDN and clinical nutrition specialist for UNJURY Protein and OPURITY Vitamins, as well as registered dietitian for the Washington Nutrition Group. “People with celiac disease are allergic to gluten, which is the binding protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats.”

“Diagnosis [for celiac disease] can be made through blood tests testing for gluten autoantibodies, as well as a small bowel biopsy,” continued Bragg. “We all have villi that line our small intestines. For normal people without a gluten allergy or intolerance, the villi stand straight up like little hairs. For people with celiac disease, the villi lie flat, preventing vitamins from fully being absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and out to the blood.”

And for those in this group, gluten is no joke. An article by EatRight.org reveals that gluten reactions caused by celiac disease can be very serious if left untreated, “triggering the release of antibodies which mount an assault on the intestines. These attacks damage the intestine … They also cause many unpleasant symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea and weight loss or weight gain. Untreated, celiac can also lead to complications such as anemia, neurological disorders and osteoporosis.”

So, for those for whom the elimination of gluten is medically necessary, the current societal craze is a great thing. An NPR article lists the many benefits for people who formerly had trouble finding foods to fit with their restricted diet. Among those are increased ease in social situations, where the new trendsetters may be those who formerly felt like a burden requesting gluten-free cake, and a greater variety of options for choosing foods sans gluten when eating out at restaurants. However, though every cloud has its silver lining, there are big drawbacks.

Gluten-free for everyone
So, what started this widespread way of thinking that we should avoid gluten in order to maintain an ever-increasing focus on healthy lifestyles?

“I think the implication is that because gluten is in so many manufactured products, it is an ‘evil’ food that we all should avoid to be healthy,” observed Ann Robinson, Ph.D., RD and former director and founder of Lumina Training Associates, a dietary training program for school foodservice professionals. “Marketers imply that gluten has to do with processing, which of course is not true. It is the protein in wheat [that makes people allergic], regardless of the amount of processing.”

Photo Courtesy of Aaron Del Giudice | Flickr
Photo Courtesy of Aaron Del Giudice | Flickr

Bragg echoes these sentiments. “What people forget is that gluten is not an enemy to normal people,” she said. “And there are many unhealthy foods that are gluten-free – think French fries, ice cream, etc. The public is seeing gluten as an unhealthy ingredient, but it really isn’t unhealthy. Only those with a true allergy or intolerance should be avoiding gluten. The gluten-free diet is definitely a fad diet, just like the Paleo diet, Atkins diet, etc., that are all restrictive elimination diets.”

So, unless diagnosed with an often symptom-laden bodily response to gluten, there really are no hard and fast facts that support cutting it out of one’s diet. Even though many companies proudly tout the claims that their gluten-free products will help people lose weight, maintain a healthy figure or otherwise improve their lives, the truth of the matter is that gluten is not the enemy for the average person.

Unless experiencing symptoms, most professionals recommend holding off on eliminating an entire group of foods. And if you’re still convinced that gluten-free is the right choice for you, even if you’re sans celiac disease or other intolerances, make sure to do your research before falling into a tricky marketing scheme.

Doing gluten-free ethically and looking ahead to the future
In conjunction with the ever-evolving thoughts about gluten-free lifestyles and the benefits that many believe they provide is a sneaky backstage player: Marketers love them. Why, you may ask? It’s the reason that “although less than 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, a 2013 poll found that 30 percent of American adults say they are trying to avoid gluten.” Genius marketing is the answer.

An article from 2013 by iPost shows the second piece to the gluten-free puzzle, which really is a main reason the trend stays on marketers’ radars: “In addition to being gluten-free, they [the products] often cost approximately twice as much as the other items on the shelf.” And the real kicker is it’s easy to charge this price. Convince the American public that something is “healthy,” and they’ll gladly pay a premium. We’ve seen this trend time and time again, everywhere from the famed Jenny Craig diet food shipments to Coke Zero.

The real question here, at least for those of us in the PR world, isn’t whether Americans should choose to eliminate gluten from their diets or not. Though the evidence would suggest against doing so, that has and always will be a personal choice. What it really boils down to is ethical marketing and promotion of one’s products.

Per iPost, “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates labeling of gluten-free products and provides information on their website. According to an article on Advertising Age, many products that have never contained gluten, simply because they aren’t made with those grains, can market their product as gluten-free and they are doing so to appeal to the people who want this type of food.”

With so many misconceptions being thrown consumers’ way, what’s the best way to counteract the possibility of unintentionally lying to your key audiences? iPost recommends keeping your content as balanced and clear as possible to avoid any confusion.

“Your target market can be anyone and everyone if you play your cards right, but you have to be ethical and honest in marketing your specialized food product,” the article reads. “When engaging customers through an email or social media marketing campaign, let them know that your product is designed for people for certain conditions, but share reasons why regular folks should pay more for your healthy options.”

In terms of the gluten-free frenzy for Americans who do not have a medical intolerance to the protein, Robinson predicts that it will come and go in time, the same way many fad diets have over the years.

“I think it will be a relatively short-term craze as most of the crazes are,” said Robinson. “True health professionals, and particularly registered dietitians, always recommend a varied diet that includes a wide variety of foods.”

The gluten-free diet may only be around for a couple more years, but maintaining an honest and ethical relationship with your company’s key publics is one trend that’s never going out of style.

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