More people than ever are buying into the gluten-free trend – not necessarily because they are suffering from coeliac disease, but because it is has achieved a bit of a ‘health halo’ status. Just the mention of ‘gluten-free’ on a packet seems to endow some mystical health benefit. There has been an explosion in gluten-free products, fuelled in small part by a genuine growth in coeliac disease which has increased four-fold over the past 20 years.
However, much of the drive behind the increase is due to many other things – the publicity around a lower carbohydrate diet, celebrity influence and manufacturers’ knowledge that they can charge a premium for gluten-free products (over twice as much in many cases). Gluten-free products are predicted to attract a £250m market share by 2017.
The health-halo effect can lead us to eat more of something than is actually healthy (Photo: unspalash.com)
Whilst only around 1 in 100 of us actually have coeliac disease, many more are concerned that they have an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. These may experience similar symptoms to coeliac disease (such as bloating, wind and diarrhoea) without actually having the intestinal damage of coeliac disease.
Non-coeliac gluten intolerance is really a type of irritable bowel syndrome that seems to improve if gluten-containing products are avoided. It is unclear why this should be, and even whether it is the gluten itself that causes these symptoms. People avoiding gluten tend to reduce a lot of heavily processed foods and eat a more healthy and varied diet, which reduces many symptoms in itself.
For those with coeliac disease - an autoimmune disorder affecting primarily the small intestine - these products are indeed healthier, as they don’t cause the same damaging effects that ingesting gluten does. Good-quality ‘gluten-free’ is more than better for you; it is essential for your health and may provide you with a greater range of options in your diet.
If you think you have gluten-intolerance get a proper test for coeliac disease as it can’t be diagnosed properly if you have already cut out gluten. Once coeliac disease has been properly excluded then having gluten will do you no harm but you may prefer to avoid or reduce your intake if it genuinely causes symptoms. Reduce the processed bread, cakes and biscuits that add little, if anything, to a nutritious diet anyway.
And if gluten causes you no symptoms then going gluten-free is of no proven benefit. However, by reducing gluten-containing products, you will cut your intake of many of the processed carbohydrates that we eat in excess. Don’t just replace them with a less healthy, gluten-free version though – eating a meal that is free of gluten, but full of vegetables and proteins instead is certainly going to be much healthier.
Many pre-packaged gluten-free products make up for their lack of gluten by including more sugar or fat to make the product appetising, but may actually make the gluten-free products less healthy than the standard versions. They may also contain a much lower level of fibre and minerals, which can be stripped during the production process. The health-halo effect also means that when we think we are eating something healthy (even if it isn’t) we tend to eat more of it – which may cause us to gain weight.