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Gluten-Free: A Large Misconception in American Diet Culture

Published on March 21, 2024, 1:50 p.m.
by Malia Elliott.

In recent years, “gluten-free” (GF) and “gluten-free diets” have become quite the buzzwords in the media and among young adults in America. However, there is a lot unknown to the public about gluten and those who do not consume it. It is estimated that roughly 31% of U.S. adults eat gluten-free or try to avoid the protein; however, only 4% of those avoid gluten for medical reasons. With hundreds of Americans making the switch to a GF diet, many are left with curious minds.

Photo via Adobe Stock by Andrey Popov

What is gluten? What does it mean to be gluten-free? Do some medical conditions really require you to eat GF? What is the difference between an intolerance and an allergy? What is celiac disease?

According to the Mayo Clinic, gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye. A diet free of gluten is a diet that avoids all the mentioned grains. Some have to eat a gluten-free diet because it is necessary to reduce symptoms and manage harm for those with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that inhibits the body’s ability to safely break down the gluten protein, causing damage to the small intestine and the potential inability to absorb other nutrients if left untreated. Others have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy that can mimic celiac or a normal food allergy but does not harm the small intestine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows for a product to be labeled as gluten-free that contains up to 20 parts per million of gluten. However, a nonprofit, Gluten Free Certification Organization, is pushing back against the FDA for allowing this much gluten to be contained in foods. GFCO recommends allowing only 10 parts per million of gluten in foods for them to be labeled GF, making it much safer for those with celiac to consume. The FDA, Celiac Disease Foundation and GFCO are all concerned about the safety of celiac sufferers when eating at restaurants. With high risks for cross-contamination and lax rules, eating out at a restaurant is one of the greatest challenges for those on a GF diet.

So, what does this all mean for those in America who must eat GF? Due to health organizations having different standards to certify a product as gluten-free and various reasons for going GF, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be gluten-free and what the different medical conditions mean.

According to a Beyond Celiac news release, 28% of Americans assume that people who eat gluten-free are seeking attention and do not have an actual medical need. The report also highlighted that only 33% of Americans recognize the difficulty of eating for GF people during social settings.

Photo via Adobe Stock by bit24

The Celiac Disease Foundation and Beyond Celiac both heavily recommend that celiac sufferers try to only consume products with GFCO certification, as it allows fewer parts per million of gluten to be included. With the rise of GF diets as a health “fad” and Americans doing it with the hopes of losing weight, it leaves many problems for gluten allergy and celiac sufferers. A study from Oklahoma State University found that only 1% of Americans are diagnosed with celiac disease, but that the sale of GF foods has greatly increased due to the perception that food products with gluten-free labels are healthier than other products. The study also talked about how companies are playing into this fad to help increase sales. This practice is detrimental to how others perceive those with medical conditions requiring a GF diet have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Beyond Celiac is primarily focused on the research of celiac disease but also advocates for funds toward the research efforts of celiac and for public policy. GFCO advocates by providing stricter guidelines for a GF certification and shares articles to keep the public up-to-date on news in the GF world. The Celiac Disease Foundation advocates for public policy change surrounding the research of celiac and public perspective. While their efforts are making great strides for celiac individuals and their ability to eat safely, they are lacking in educating the general public and helping to clear up misconceptions about those who do not eat gluten.

Public relations practitioners for GFCO, Beyond Celiac and other organizations have a duty to celiac, non-celiac gluten intolerance and wheat allergy sufferers to help clear the misconceptions about these medical conditions that hinder diets.

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