Lentis/Gluten-Free: Nutritional Principle or Social Value
The United States government recommends that grains compose about 25% of the daily diet. Many of these grain products contain gluten. Yet a 2012 survey found that 18% of American adults buy or consume gluten-free products, such as quinoa and tapioca bread. This chapter explores the popularity of the gluten-free diet and its effect on American culture.
In 2008, the gluten-free industry was valued at $1.6 billion, and gluten-free products were 242% more expensive than regular products. By 2013, the industry had tripled in value, and gluten-free products were only 162% more expensive than regular products. This gluten-free boom is largely attributed to an increase in demand for gluten-free products, prompting food corporations to increase gluten-free product manufacturing. This increase in demand may be explained by the groups that eat gluten-free.
Celiac disease is a gastrointestinal disease that makes it difficult to digest gluten, resulting in irritable bowels. To avoid this stomach pain, celiacs abstain from consuming gluten. The celiac population has increased four-fold in the last 50 years, yet celiacs still represent less than 1% of the US population. Additionally, 1 out of 5 people with celiac are aware of their disorder. Since celiacs that are aware of their diagnosis constitute a small portion of the population, it is unlikely they are the sole cause for the 21st century gluten-free boom.
Studies have found that non-celiacs consuming gluten may still experience celiac-like symptoms. This reaction is called gluten sensitivity. A relatively new diagnosis, statistics on how many people suffer from gluten sensitivity remain unknown. The population is likely smaller than expected, however, as 93% of people who believe they have gluten sensitivity suffer no adverse health effects from gluten consumption.
While medical conditions force people to eat gluten-free, there are those that voluntarily partake in the diet. Many believe that cutting out gluten can lead to increased energy, better nutrition, and better quality of life.  With blogs praising the health benefits of a gluten-free diet, more and more people have tried the diet to experience these same effects.
In 2010, the gluten-free diet started to gain popularity in the mainstream media. One of the first appearances of gluten-free products in mainstream media was the gluten-free cake at Chelsea Clinton's wedding. Isaiah Mustafa, known for his role in Old Spice commercials, touted his gluten-free diet on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Miley Cyrus announced her gluten-free diet in 2012 by tweeting, "[E]veryone should try no gluten for a week! The change in your skin, phyisical[sic] and mental health is amazing! U won't go back!" There is even a list of the celebrities that have gone gluten-free. Celebrity backing of the gluten-free diet further increased the diet's publicity and contributed to the increase in demand for gluten-free products.
Research on Gluten-Free Diet
Due to the increased popularity of gluten-free diets, recent studies have analyzed their nutritional value. A study from the Federal University of Minas Gerais revealed that excluding gluten from diets can reduce obesity and metabolic disorders. Gluten-heavy foods were found to increase fat tissue production and insulin resistance, resulting in unhealthier animal test subjects.
Other studies have uncovered conflicting results regarding the health benefits of a gluten-free diet. One study found that 20% of diagnosed celiac disease patients experienced a slight increase in BMI after adhering to a gluten-free diet. Research has shown that gluten-free products have one-third of the protein and twice the saturated fat as their gluten-containing counterparts. This results in the reduction of gut bacteria that is imperative to the immune system.
Based on conflicting work within the field, a direct link remains unestablished between a gluten-free diet and health benefits.
Psychological phenomena may help explain the perceived health benefits of a gluten-free diet.
Nocebo Effect: One psychological phenomenon that helps explain this trend is the nocebo effect. This is essentially the inverse of the placebo effect, where people experience positive outcomes from neutral substances. On the other hand, for the nocebo effect, if a subject is led to believe, prior to undergoing a treatment, that the treatment will harm them, they are more likely to experience this harm. As the media began to cover the alleged health benefits of a gluten-free diet, the adverse effects of gluten consumption were assumed by many to be real. This creates an anti-gluten bias that may lead to perceived bowel discomfort following gluten consumption.
Garcia Effect: The Garcia effect, also known as taste aversion, occurs when someone attributes gastrointestinal sickness to the specific food they ate, making that food less desirable. A person might feel sick after eating an entire pizza and attribute their sickness to the gluten in the pizza, when the excess fat likely caused the sickness. With more anecdotes available about the adverse effects of gluten, taste aversion to gluten-containing products is increasingly likely.
Bandwagon Effect: Another psychological explanation of why people go gluten-free involves the bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect is when the rate of a trend increases the more people participate in it. Everyone wants to be a part of the crowd, so if someone see others doing something, the person will want to join. Once a significant number of people were participating in the gluten-free diet, it made more people want to join.
Effects of the Gluten-Free Diet
While the scientific reasoning for the rise in popularity of gluten-free diets may be unfounded, the effects of this boom have reached many social groups.
Prior to the gluten-free boom, gluten-free products were limited and much more expensive than regular products. As a result, the diet was considered unappealing. As it became popularized and the demand increased, prices were driven down. This resulted in more quality food options at a reduced price. This is advantageous to all gluten-free consumers.
Many companies see the growing gluten-free market as an area to invest in. Food companies such as Betty Crocker , Pillsbury, and Kellogg recently released gluten-free products. Because the total number of people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance hasn’t significantly changed, this product shift can be accredited to the people eating gluten-free by choice. Smaller brands that are exclusively gluten-free have also been able to make their way into the market. Udi’s has been around since 1994, yet they were just recently able to sell packaged products when the diet became popularized in 2008.
The trend of eating gluten-free foods negatively affects groups that cannot readily adapt their business plan. This is evident in the wheat, barley, and rye industries. The largest wheat producer in the U.S., Kansas, has responded by releasing a monthly magazine called Rediscover Wheat..The Kansas Association of Wheat Growers (KAWG) and the Kansas Wheat Commission (KWC) have partnered to advertise the benefits of a wheat diet based on the nutritional value and its historical importance. The KWC has invested $200,000 to create genetically modified wheat that is safe for people with celiac disease.
Other groups such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) work to regulate the gluten-free industry through education and certification. Along with the Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF), these organizations have the burden of informing a larger population as the gluten-free diet becomes more common. With diverse groups going gluten-free, GIG and CDF have needed to change their recommendations for lifestyle and diet choices.
The introduction of gluten-free foods into regular diets has profoundly impacted food industry operations. Some restaurants have introduced gluten-free labels on their menus.This action is in response to the growth of the gluten-free diet. The addition of gluten-free items to menus influences the ingredients ordered and the preparation steps taken to avoid contamination. This creates additional costs for gluten-free processors and distributors.
Previously seen as an unappealing food choice, gluten-free products are seen in a new light with the help of independent bloggers and cookbook makers. The growing gluten-free community has provided a new niche for recipe makers.
Does it Work?
Although the science behind the nutritional value of a gluten-free diet remains unclear, the diet is able to succeed in many facets. Since gluten-free products are more expensive, people choosing to adhere to the diet are willing to spend more money on healthier alternatives such as fruits and vegetables. These replaces some of the carb-heavy foods which typically result in excess fat. Additionally, by making the conscious decision to eat healthy, many people eating gluten-free reject unhealthy options such as fast foods. As a result, society may correctly perceive their new diet and lifestyle choices to be working even if excluding gluten provided no benefit by itself.
The gluten-free case has demonstrated the conflict between the opinion of the masses and scientific evidence. The public's acceptance of the potential benefits in a gluten free-diet shows the power of social influence. The growth in the gluten-free diet's popularity can be attributed to the snowball effect. Celebrity endorsements, social trends, and industrial growth collectively contributed to the rise in popularity.
Similar snowball effects have occurred recently. The concern in Korea surrounding fan death and the worry of drowning by swimming after eating show that public perception of consequences will sometimes overshadow scientific evidence. This phenomenon is defined by the Thomas Theorem. It is important to consider the battle between perceived and actual consequences when analyzing social trends. This case should be revisited when scientific research provides a more firm stance on the diet's nutritional impact.
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