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    $4.6 Billion:The Gluten Free Fad Cashes In
    By Hank Campbell | September 19th 2013 05:48 PM | 41 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

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    A year ago I noted an alarming increase in celiac disease patients - it seemed to be afflicting a lot of rich, white, American women.

    Outrage and scorn were delivered to my door; dozens of comments vilified me for saying it was not a real disease - which would have been fine, had I actually said that. Yet dwarfing those comments by hundreds were the anecdotal claims of people who had self-diagnosed themselves as celiac, at least until they discovered that since it was an actual life-threatening disease, they couldn't claim they had it, so they had reverted to being gluten sensitive, or even intolerant - vague and non-descriptive and requiring no pesky diagnosis.

    It turns out I was not wrong and the way to know I was not wrong is to follow the money. 'Gluten free' became a $4.2 billion industry in the last year, despite the fact that there are the same number of celiac patients and unless you are celiac, going gluten-free is doing you no good. If you are clueless, like Lady Gaga, you even think it is a diet, which might explain why she ballooned up after going off gluten.

      
    Lady Gaga left, on her gluten-free diet. On the right, just eating less food. Images: Left is NY Daily News and right is OMG.

    Advertising is all about perception, and if you are willing to perceive that going gluten free makes you healthier even if you are not celiac, someone is willing to either label their product that way or charge you more for something new.

    And if you like buying meaningless labels, I have good news. Since the FDA has clarified what being called gluten-free means, a lot of products are going to get a new label, even though they never had gluten in the first place; like ice cream, potato chips and meat. Hey, if people will buy non-GMO rock salt, they will buy a package that reads gluten-free meat.


    Credit and link: MNN and Shea Gunther's friend Jes, who took the picture.

    Phil Lempert, a food-industry analyst who runs SuperMarketGuru.com, was quoted by Ad Age as predicting that "the bubble will burst" in a few years. "Gluten-free products are expensive, so that will drive shoppers away from buying them once they realize little or no benefits from the diet."

    Well, there are still 3 million actual celiacs, so the market can't really burst. They likely appreciate the greater choices, if not the scorn of being lumped in with Hollywood actresses. And then there is the market that just never learns. A lot of people bought that book "Wheat Belly" despite the fact that it had even less actual science than Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". So they are going to keep on spending. 

    And companies will keep on making the stuff because gluten-free products are 242% pricier and no one minds - at least until the health fad types move onto something new. Then the first rule of labeling will kick in: The most important label is the price tag.


    Credit and link: Capital Press

    Comments

    Hank,
    I get what you are saying, but you are wrong about the gluten-free fad. I went off of wheat in 2001 and it dramatically changed my life for the better. (I'm not diagnosed celiac, but who cares? I don't call myself a celiac patient.) The same thing happens to many people. I don't need research to back up my claims, I'm happy to rely on my own experience. I don't make a fuss in restaurants and I don't need bread or pasta substitutes. I'll happily consume GMO corn and tomatoes and whatever else they put in front of me, but wheat is poison for me.

    Himalayan rock salt...yeah, that's crazy. Everyone knows that Bolivian Rose salt is the way to go.

    Hank
    Some people give up sugar and feel better, some people give up carbs and feel better - but anecdotes can't be a health policy for a nation. A lot of people do buy non-GMO rock salt, despite the fact that salt is not an organism, so some will buy gluten-free food based on TV shows. But for the people who genuinely want to be informed before they spend their money, science exists.
    'But for the people who genuinely want to be informed before they spend their money, science exists.'

    Yes science exists but it is becoming a religion that must not to be questioned by the general public see http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2013/sep/19/science-rel...

    Henry Gee says it's time for the science priesthood to be taken to task – and he says that science journalists aren't up to the job because scientific research gets trapped in more box canyons than the Lone Ranger; does more U-turns than the average government; falls to certain death more often than Wile E Coyote and generally gets the wrong answer.

    It turns out I was not wrong and the way to know I was not wrong is to follow the money. 'Gluten free' became a $4.2 billion industry in the last year

    Yeah, you know.
    http://www.science20.com/cool-links/follow_money_arguments_are_bogus-90429

    Hank
    'Follow the money' conspiracy theories are bogus - there is no evidence some evil Big Celiac corporation created a celiac epidemic to sell their food -  but advertisers and sales organizations will build and sell a product people get convinced by Dr. Oz they should buy.
    Oh, I see, you're on a mission from God.

    This gluten-free fad has been a great boon to celiacs, since it means that there is a lot more available for them to eat. Please don't tell all the people who have gone gluten-free without reason that they can start eating gluten again.

    Hank
    Well, we don't ask people to be duped by misinformation in order to make more products for a tiny segment of the population. I have said numerous times that there is a benefit for celiacs - no more of that nasty, uncertain mail-order stuff - and that the market will not collapse when the fad ends. But fad diet books and hucksters lying to people about health benefits is not the way to help celiac patients.
    Gluten is not just painful to Celiacs.

    Wow so you are just removing my comments now because I disagree with you? You must feel very threatened by my intellect. Where is the evidence that gluten sensitivity is a scam? There is plenty of evidence that it is real. I posted a link in fact and what a surprise the post didn't make it through.

    This is a science site, supposedly. But with the political agendas and attacks on white women, feminists, and now white women again, it is really more like a personal site. If you want to be taken seriously by scientists you cannot run from criticism by removing posts. There is nothing inappropriate about any of the posts of mine that you have removed.

    Isabel, it doesn't appear that Hank does explanations, evidence or links. I believe he's more prone to ridicule, off the cuff remarks, and puffery.

    Hank
    If either of you (or, more likely, since one comment under one name always follows the other) would bother to say something constructive or informative for the audience, rather than babble nonsense, you might get a real response - everyone else does. Instead, you want to crap all over the Internet while contributing zero that is of any value to anyone outside your vanity. Write a science article of your own or stay an anonymous coward, it's your choice. But the world of science and media does not exist to give you a platform to be an anonymous idiot, so quit whining and get over it.
    I don't quit agree with may things you have written, but thank you for this no non-sense article, though. Of course it is true that there are people who are allergic to gluten and they should be careful with what they eat. But the 'gluten-free' thingy was clearly a fad that I'm glad to see subsiding.

    Hank
    Right, and as I have said before, things were really bleak for celiac patients 25 years ago (food-wise) so it is good that food culture is never going back to that - but clearly some of the sillier labels will come and go rather fast, once people are educated about what gluten actually is. In the 1970s, when sugar was the big killer, I imagine we would have gotten Sugar Free Butter labels if media attention had been so easy to capture.
    So your back-up evidence has to do with one person, Lady Gaga, having gained weight at one point. That's not very scientific and neither is your very biased article.

    Hank
    You are making two different points; fine, you don't like jokes about Lady Gaga, but how is that bias? Do you think gluten free is not a fad? It clearly is, unless you have evidence that a gluten intolerance epidemic suddenly took over the world.  Outside the crackpot community, there is no belief, much less evidence, in that.
    You really should do more research since the issue celiac disease has always been one of marginal and difficult diagnosis. Testing was often inconclusive and many patients went through the suffering of celiac's with no firm medical support for their condition. Now that this is improved, it is hardly indicative that there aren't lesser conditions that celiac's. That's why many physicians are concluding that there are cases of gluten sensitivity that result in some indicators being present.

    Unfortunately there is no definitive test as this time, so it is often like the basic considerations regarding allergies where we simply remove various foods until we discover something that works. Therefore if a patient has symptoms and they can be alleviated by the elimination of gluten, it is certainly not advisable to suggest otherwise simply because no definitive test yet exists. There is certainly no harm in going gluten-free and in many patients it will promote healthier eating of fruits and vegetables. Until there is definitive evidence that a gluten sensitivity doesn't exist or can't exist, it is certainly premature to presume that everyone is a crackpot. As you should certainly know, there are many diseases and conditions that the media reports as epidemics for no better reason than better diagnostic techniques and raised awareness within the medical community.

    Of all the fads to be criticizing, I find your choice to be questionable, beyond it simply being an opportunity to vent your own frustrations.

    Hank
    Not to dissuade you from playing amateur psychologist on the Internet, but what would lead an MD to conclude I am frustrated about Celiac patients? I have never once criticized them. People who are being duped by fads should have some insight presented by people who are not making money exploiting them - like doctors who find gluten sensitivity for anyone who walks in their office or companies selling an expensive product.

    Using your logic would also justify homeopathy or anything else - it means all medicine is subjective, and therefore not evidence-based.
    I never suggested you were frustrated by celiac patients, but rather that something must be frustrating you about this so-called fad. As doctors, we don't always have the luxury of telling patients to go home until we have definitive evidence. We don't always work with complete knowledge. However, we also don't have to operate on hearsay.

    If I run tests and detect elevated antibody counts or see elevated WBC values in biopsied tissue, are you suggesting that we simply let it sit on the shelf until science has deemed it conclusive? Of course not, we have to work with what we have, and if there are symptoms that suggest a particular course of action, especially when it is largely harmless, it is certainly worthy of pursuit.

    As for medicine being subjective? I don't know where you got that from, but there are definitive things that are scientifically known, but those are also accompanied by sufficient caveats that makes everyone realize they could change. There are things that are not so definitive, and there are things that are simply unknown. If you think that interpreting data and assessing a course of treatment is not ultimately subjective and dependent on a physician's best judgement, then it's clear you don't work in science. If it were only dependent on objective knowledge, then you could simply go to WebMD and save yourself a trip to the doctor.

    Hank
    If I run tests and detect elevated antibody counts or see elevated WBC values in biopsied tissue, are you suggesting that we simply let it sit on the shelf until science has deemed it conclusive? Of course not, we have to work with what we have, and if there are symptoms that suggest a particular course of action, especially when it is largely harmless, it is certainly worthy of pursuit.
    Absolutely agree. But if you want to believe this runaway train of revenue in gluten-free foods is from people who had any sort of testing done, you are welcome to - though the numbers don't show it. People are overpaying for the food because they see magazine articles and TV shows claiming it is somehow 'healthier' to be gluten-free. That is not evidence-based.  Surely you know that and tell the public that.
    I'm sorry, but worrying about what people pay for food is not high on my priorities regarding patient care, unless they are undernourished. If they wish to be gluten-free and it makes them eat more fruit and vegetables, why would I discourage that? If I have a patient tell me that running 10 miles a day makes them feel better, why should I discourage them if there are no medical risks involved? I would much rather have my patients go on a gluten-free fad diet, than to visit fast food restaurants or eat a tin of biscuits in front of the television, so I fail to see what your issue is, beyond simply wanting to chastise a fad.

    Hank
    Health is not just for the rich so it is probably good that someone does care whether or not the public gets some health value for their dollars or buys an expensive placebo promoted by hucksters as a general diet plan.  I don't see how it is harmless for people to be exploited and it is certainly not the same as saying I am discouraging exercise if I discourage fad diets.
    Then it seems you need to focus on reining in your media and advertisers. But, I think that most of the folks in the states think that's what a free market is supposed to be, so if its not wrong for Mcdonald's to advertise how wholesome or convenient its food is, then why is it wrong for others to promote gluten-free food? Why is it acceptable for commercials to market sugared cereals to children or promote fast food with toys?

    It seems that with so many places that misinformation exists, you've selected a quite specific and unnecessary target for your ire.

    Not even worth arguing with you since you are hell bent on disagreeing with everyone, but I care nothing about Lady Gaga, she is a weirdo. Anyway, you clearly don't understand what you're writing about. Let's see you get a gluten allergy and see how you feel.

    Hank
    If I had a gluten allergy, I would not be doing it as a fad or a diet gimmick. Had you read that article and not just looked at the Lady Gaga picture, that point would be clear.
    I suspect that it is a fad, but I also think the research on both sides is pretty weak. There have been studies, for example, that show elevated antibodies to gluten in autistics, yet the mainstream medical community continues to insist that the studies are meaningless. The reason: Neither study was effectively double-blind. (The patients could easily taste the difference.)

    Good research would dictate followup studies, using a broader sample size, and various levels of controls. To date, the research has not been done. Until it is, though, this is not settled science. If someone has increased antibodies to gluten, then they might also have symptoms associated with inflammation.

    The research on glutamate receptors and neurotoxicity is still a little unclear, and that is just one of the many, many theories behind the thousands of examples of "anecdotal" reports.

    And you might be doing your patients a disservice to simply assume they are liars and fools.

    Hank
    On your last point, finding a diagnosis to match any claim is also not doing patients any favors - unfortunately, rich people have doctors who do just that. Symptom-based diagnosis stopped being used in medicine 50 years ago, even psychologists have been told they can no longer do it, and they were the last group still trying to make that work.

    Certainly research gluten. A subset of scientists latch onto fads just like food companies so I would expect lots of papers on gluten to come out over the next few years. But they won't be surveys asking if people felt better after changing their diets.
    I hardly think elevated antibodies constitute diagnosis by symptom.

    In the case of gliadin and gluten, the immune system response could easily show up well in advance of symptoms. Many researchers take the position that if there are elevated antibodies to gliadin and gluten, but there is no evidence of Celiac Disease, there is no proof that the patient would benefit from GFCF. That seems more like "diagnosis by symptom" to me than the assumption that more testing is required.

    The idea that it’s ok to eat gluten, even if the immune system is offering the most obvious early warning, is a position that more and more doctors are rejecting.

    Hank
    You are quote mining, which is a sure sign you are more interested in advocacy than medicine. I actually wrote, though you left off the important part:
    On your last point, finding a diagnosis to match any claim is also not doing patients any favors - unfortunately, rich people have doctors who do just that.
    And those fad people are the reason gluten-free is the butt of popular jokes so often now. So you should be ridiculing them also, instead of complaining about people who ridicule them.
    It seems that you just want to take pot-shots without actually saying anything. The link you provided about GF being the butt of jokes, indicates that they don't think very much of you. Also why was a comment about Rachel Carson necessary? Why was a comment about non-GMO salt necessary?

    It seems like you don't have anything to say beyond simply making fun of whatever happens to be within reach.

    Even your points about marketing and advertising are incomprehensible, since you don't seem to take any particular position beyond a general aim of ridicule. As the MD mentioned in an earlier post, why are you not down on advertisers or marketing for fast food or fat free labels, or more fiber labels. As long as I can remember there have been fad diets, where some people believe the wildest things about what will make them healthy. Why is GF such a hot button for you, and why is it that you can contribute nothing to the dialogue beyond being mean?

    So while you may think that you're helping the celiac community by pointing out those that have just jumped on a fad, the indications are that the community doesn't want your help. You're insulting them and you're ridiculing them. If you don't believe me, then read your link about jokes again. I think you'll find that you've managed to offend them in virtually every way possible.

    Hank
    You're missing the point. Celiacs are not the problem, and I linked to that piece precisely because he missed the point also - his making jokes about a mushroom diet would be irony in most cases - and feels like the whole world is ridiculing him. But Leno, Geico, etc. are ridiculing the fakes. If celiac patients don't like feeling like they are being lumped in with the fakes (and they were not, by me), the solution is not to let fakes have a free pass and then criticize anyone who ridicules fakes.

    You're the one missing the point. You can't take broad swipes at being gluten-free and talk about how stupid these people are and then add a little sidebar giving a nod to people with celiac disease as exceptions. As a writer making social commentary you should recognize that if your message isn't getting across, then perhaps its you and not your audience that is lacking.

    Hank
    The message is getting across fine - perhaps you like articles that are more "isn't the universe mysterious" and "bizarre sex in the animal kingdom" and are fine with misinformation about health being propagated - read Scientific American instead of here - but thousands of other people are getting informed; it's just primarily the jag-offs with nothing of value to contribute who tend to comment, but that is the nature of the Internet.
    I have to say, I respect your desire to create a debate and some of your conclusions are accurate. Many people erroneously go on GF diets and I agree its pretty stupid. If you eat GF substitute food, you will gain weight for sure. However, as a mother to a biopsy confirmed Celiac (and I can tell you that you CAN be absolutely certain of the diagnosis), the world isn't really that much better. Sure there are lots of GF foods out there - most of them full of fat and sugar and other empty calories, but going out to eat is still very scary. Upscale restaurants are best but even there I have chefs get irritated as I try to make sure the food is safe for my son (they KNOW, they don't need me to tell them), only to have them cross contaminate the food. I wish more restaurants would get educated and certified as they do in Italy to keep the Celiac community safe. Not only is it a very serious disease, it is NOT an allergy - its an autoimmune disease. And, yes, we don't have to go out. But eating is very central to social life, especially when you are 15.....

    Hank
    Right, and this is what would be scary to me if I were celiac; once you get so many fad diet people doing it that it becomes ridiculed in Geico commercials and on The Tonight Show, people who are not educated will assume most people are fakes too; and that puts actual celiac people at risk, whereas the 'my anecdote is evidence and I felt better giving up gluten' community won't be harmed at all by contamination that can occur when people say something is gluten-free because they think you are trying to be Gwyneth Paltrow.

    What always surprises me is the wagon-circling around the fakes - what would be better for celiac patients (and their mothers) is to tell the fad diet people to stop trivializing a real disease, instead a whole bunch of people will show up on articles like this and say I am a bad guy for making fun of Lady Gaga, who has no reason at all to give up gluten.
    Yes, I agree with you. Nothing worse for the Celiac community than a bunch of people who decide to eat GF but have no clue what that really means.

    "Some people give up sugar and feel better, some people give up carbs and feel better - but anecdotes can't be a health policy for a nation"

    Who is making it into a health policy? Is all this upset and censorship because of your ties to agribusiness perhaps?

    Hank
    No, I have no ties to anyone - but you have clearly proven to be a conspiratorial crackpot with nothing of any value to contribute, so just move along to wherever crazy people perpetuate their nonsense and leave this article to adults.
    No one yet has found evidence that humans evolved picking bread off trees or pasta off bushes. Sugar and carbs are not part of a normal diet for humans. Protein and fat should be a large part of our normal diet. Nutririonists and dieticians all knew that until the early 1980's introduced the low fat diet fad. Caloric intake restriction wont get you to lose weight. Ween yourself from Carbs and sugar and weight will melt off your body.

    I have no doubt some people have this, but I think it's the kind of disorder that is open to adoption by a certain segment of the population, contemporary versions of women who once suffered from hypoglycemia, sick building syndrome and the like. It was strange how many people stopped suffering from hypolycemia when the fad burned out. There is something weird about the way some people wed themselves to this disorder. I have one friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She's in chemo but carries on with her life and we rarely discuss the disease. I have another friend whose addiction to discussing her wheat intolerance has about ruined our friendship, or at least put it on ice until the fad dies down. Every time I talk to her, I hear a replay of her miraculous discovery, how much it's done for her energy and figure -- and them comes the proselytizing as she tries to convince me that I should give up "white" food -- bread, pasta etc. A bit of "science" I believe she got from Oprah. This is a friend of long standing, artistic and intelligent, but this has assumed the aspects of a religious crusade with her, so obviously it's fulfilling some other need.

    Hank
    Sure. People die and get really sick so we know they have it. 50 years ago it was unknown so they just suffered. And some may have intolerance. But people selling something are trying to turn this into an 'epidemic' either for validation or to make money. As you noted (and what the article is about) in many cases this is a 'first world problem' where people with money and time embrace it until they self-diagnose with something new.

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