It’s a server’s worst nightmare: with bright eyes and some extra pep in your step, you make your way to the front of your newly seated table and flash a smile.
“Hey guys, my name is (insert over annunciated name here to avoid any potential confusion over your title) and I will be taking care of you all today. Could I get you started off with something to drink?”
A set of newfound faces peers back up at you and each will rattle of individual drink orders. You scribble down each customer’s desired beverage and cheerfully let the group know that if they have any questions, you’d love to help. You begin to spin and turn your back to the group when you’re stopped in your tracks.
“Um, yes sir/ma’am? I have a question … what gluten free options do you have? I’m … gluten-free.”
The nightmare begins.
From this point on, this particular diner will incessantly remind you of their dietary restrictions brought on by a newly, often self-diagnosed, gluten “sensitivity.” No bread will be suitable for their needs. An endless stream of questions will be incited by the introduction of each menu item. Eyes will be rolled, and patience will be lost.
Gluten is a protein composite often found in wheat, barley and other grain products. This combination of proteins is what gives most bread products their shape, and permits for elasticity in the doughs that are used to make these products “chewy.”
Yet as we all know, the connotation of certain words can be changed over time. Realistically, gluten is no longer simply an ingredient found in various grains and baked goods. In fact, the phrase “gluten” has come to render thoughts of the lesser, as something unhealthy or almost toxic that should be avoided whenever possible.
Gluten can be dangerous for some individuals to consume. These individuals are comprised of a small portion of society that have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the villi found in the small intestine are damaged when gluten is consumed. These villi are small projections lining the small intestine, and these structures allow for the absorption of nutrients.
Some of the most common symptoms of celiac disease include digestive issues such as abdominal pain, intestinal upset and weight loss.
Here lies the base of the gluten-free craze: weight loss.
It is estimated that 1 out of 133 Americans have celiac disease, translating to less than 1 percent of the population needing to follow a gluten-free diet. Interestingly, it has been found that 29 percent of Americans would say that they wish to have less gluten in their diet.
A common misconception has been born in which consumers are led to believe that a gluten-free diet is inherently healthier, and that this new diet is a sure weight-loss device. As discussed earlier, those with celiac disease are unable to absorb nutrients properly after the villi of the small intestine are damaged from consuming gluten. This results in malnutrition if gluten is continued to be consumed, ultimately leading to weight loss.
This weight loss is a result of celiac disease itself and the malabsorption of nutrients. A gluten-free diet is not recommended for those who do not have celiac disease.
Yet a new brand of consumer has been born through the popularization of the perceived weight-loss benefits of a gluten-free diet. This new group describes themselves as being “gluten sensitive,” essentially suffering from similar gastrointestinal upset associated with the symptoms of celiac disease. One key factor cannot be over looked: those who believe themselves to be gluten sensitive will not suffer from any damage to the villi of the small intestine resulting in malabsorption and other complications later on in life.
Bearing in mind these facts, one must question: is gluten sensitivity spurred by physical causes? Or the psychological?
A recent study conducted by Peter Gibson, director of the gastrointestinal unit at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, and professor of gastroenterology at Monash University has found the causes of gluten sensitivity to be primarily psychological. Gibson can perhaps be accredited as being one of the leaders of the gluten-free and gluten-sensitive revolution. After an initial study conducted in 2011, Gibson found gluten to potentially be a cause for gastrointestinal upset in non-celiac consumers.
Yet as we all learned in 4th grade science class, part of the scientific method is to re-test and challenge any new founding. Gibson did just that.
In his second experiment, Gibson tested 37 non-celiac individuals that were following a gluten-free diet to ease gastrointestinal upset. In this study, Gibson created a more controlled baseline for the experiment by eliminating any type of potential dietary aggravators in the subject’s diets for the first two weeks of testing. These aggravators included lactose, select preservatives and a type of carbohydrate that is often not properly absorbed.
After this baseline was created, subjects were either fed a high level of gluten, a low level of gluten, or a diet perceived to contain a high level of gluten, that was actually comprised of a whey protein isolate, or placebo. Overall, each subject that had been led to believe that they were being fed a high-gluten diet complained of gastrointestinal upset, despite the actual diet they were fed.
But what does all of this mean?
It means that those self-diagnosed with gluten sensitivity simply believed to be suffering from gastrointestinal issues through the consumption of gluten. There was no actual dietary causation for these beliefs.
With this newfound evidence, it appears that the gluten-free craze may have been just what several skeptics believed it to be: just that, a craze. A fad. A new trend for consumers to follow.