the gluten-free hoax: nutritionism run amok

Today I saw a bag of high-end cheese puffs, made with organic corn and real cheese. WHEAT FREE and GLUTEN FREE, the package boasted, which made me chuckle. Yup, just like all cheese puffs for all time. Like most snack food, cheese puffs are made of corn, and corn does not contain gluten.

Marketing old products with a new twist to take advantage of a nutrition craze is nothing new, of course. I remember when fat-free and low-fat labels were slapped on everything. (This craze happened to coincide with some of my worst dieting addiction.) In those days, supermarket shelves were laden with fat-free cookies and other snack food, all of which were loaded with white sugar and other empty calories. Candy that is little more than sugar cubes with artificial colouring and flavouring would be advertised as fat-free. About a decade later, globules of saturated fat, salt, and nitrates were hawked as zero grams of carbs per serving.

I've wondered what the next craze of nutritionism would be. Now that carbohydrates are no longer the work of the devil, what would we all rush to eliminate from our diets?

I've been gluten-free

A long time ago, a doctor thought some issues of Allan's were caused by celiac disease or at least a gluten sensitivity. So I can honestly say, I was gluten-free before gluten-free was cool! We learned all about what a diet containing gluten can do to a gluten-sensitive person. It isn't pretty.

We purged our home and most of our restaurant eating of gluten. When we didn't see the expected results, we read it could take a long time to repair past damage, or we must have slipped up, or... maybe come back for more tests.

Over the years, as will happen, we became less disciplined about eating gluten. Recently our doctor confirmed that Allan is not celiac, and likely never was. So I've been everywhere on the spectrum from completely gluten free to not caring about it at all. I do know some people who have celiac disease, but I never imagined that eliminating gluten from ordinary diets would become some kind of moral imperative.

If it sounds too good to be true...

These days we are urged to believe that everything from cancer to diabetes to Alzheimer's is caused by gluten. And that should be a clue to what's really going on. When normal foods that humans have eaten for millennia are suddenly called poison, your hoax alert should be lighting up. (Similarly, when a food or a diet or a nutrient is said to cure a wide range of disease, be highly skeptical.)

Turns out there's not much science behind any of the claims for eliminating gluten. What science exists is all "...a correlation was found," and "a possible association may exist," and based on one or two studies with insignificant sample sizes. Conclusions are leapt to, wild extrapolations announced as fact, with a healthy dose of fear-mongering thrown in. After all, don't you want to prevent dementia?

Here's another trope that should set your bullshit-detector blaring: diet claims that evoke the lives of early humans. This is familiar ground in the diet industry, so adept at exploiting the disconnection and alienation of consumer culture and the vertiginous rate of change, along with the media-fostered sense that we are all so unhealthy (despite all evidence - life expectancy up, infant morality down - to the contrary). Where once we wished to "get back to the land," now we imagine we can get back to the cave.

Several very popular gluten-free diet seeks to "realign" our eating with that of our hunter-gatherer (and gluten-free!) ancestors, who supposedly never suffered from dementia. But as James Hamblin points out in "This Is Your Brain on Gluten":
In the Paleolithic Era, human life expectancy was around 30 years. Even accounting for childhood deaths and tramplings by wooly mammoths or wooly rhinoceri, humans did not live past their 50s. I wonder often why these are the times we cite as a standard of health. The paucity of old age should in itself explain why Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease were basically nonexistent, shouldn’t it?
Truth is, the authors of these diets know very little about what early humans ate, how their brains differed from ours, or even whether or not they were healthy. They certainly don't know if early humans had dementia.

I have no wish to deny anyone's personal experience. People with a gluten sensitivity absolutely feel better when they eat gluten-free. And many people without gluten sensitivity find their lives enhanced by reducing the gluten in their diets. A gluten-reduced diet is usually lower in processed foods and higher in fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains. That is, a healthier diet. So of course they feel better.

But if being gluten-free means a diet full of commercially processed foods labelled "gluten-free," the general rule applies: garbage in, garbage out.

This is your brain on advertising

To me the gluten-free fad is a prime example of what Michael Pollan calls "nutritionism," the ideology that reduces eating to the intake of specific nutrients, such as antioxidants, omega 3, cholesterol... or gluten. In some of Pollan's tweets to "glutenphobes," he has pointed out this Scientific American article about how unhealthy a gluten-free diet can be (not unlike the fat-free diet of the 1980s) and these two from The Atlantic: A Gluten-Free Diet Reality Check and This Is Your Brain on Gluten, the latter a thorough debunking. I didn't want to recreate their arguments here, but if you're skeptical about my skepticism, please do click.

I think what bothers me most about these nutritionism trends isn't the junk science or the fictions about our hunter-gatherer ancestors but the amnesia that enables their success. First we try to eliminate all the fat from our diet, and end up fatter and unhealthier. Then we try the same thing with carbohydrates, until it's obvious that, too, is unsustainable and doesn't work. But now we run off to eliminate another ordinary, (to most people) harmless, naturally occurring substance, as if we haven't heard it all before.

If you're eating gluten-free, I hope it's working out for you. It is definitely working out for marketers, advertisers, diet-book authors, and commercial producers of crappy, unhealthy, gluten-free food.


James Redekop said...

The big irony of nutritionism -- and much health-based pseudo-science -- is that its various forms will enthusiastically leap on small, preliminary studies which vaguely suggest a correlation, while simultaneously attacking large collections of massive studies which firmly establish causes. The anti-vaccination movement that grew around Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent study (done to denigrate the combined MMR vaccine in favour of a separated course of vaccines which Wakefield owned a patent on) is an even more serious example, widely believed to be responsible for the recent outbreaks of measles, mumps, and other vaccine-preventable diseases around the world.

impudent strumpet said...

Assorted thoughts, nonlinear and without a thesis:

1. The first paragraph made me think of something I just saw on the shelf: "carcinogen-free" body wash. It even named the alleged carcinogens it was free of. So I looked at the ingredients lists of some of the other body washes on the shelf, including the one I use and the cheapest one, and none of them listed these ingredients.

2. I knew a girl in high school who was actually celiac. It was so inconvenient that I'm so surprised people would do it when it isn't strictly necessary. Although I'm glad that gluten-free being a trend gives my friend more options of things she can eat in grocery stores and restaurants.

3. I've read before about the idea that "low fat" or "low carb" or whatever foods aren't good because they have too much of another bad thing, but somehow I've always ended up not picking foods that fall into this trap. Sometimes I read an article and feel moved to check the nutrition info on the food in my kitchen, and it never falls into the trap the article is warning me about.

4. Re: eating the diets of our ancient ancestors, I once saw this article where a guy was convinced that it is genetically optimal for us North Americans to eat the diet that Aboriginal people ate before the Europeans came over. But the guy who was promoting this idea was, like many North Americans, of mostly European ancestry.

laura k said...

Being gluten-free is challenging and very inconvenient. Almost all convenience foods are off-limits. Because of that, I've also been surprised that so many people would embrace it! I wonder how many people who say they're gluten-free really are.

laura k said...

enthusiastically leap on small, preliminary studies which vaguely suggest a correlation, while simultaneously attacking large collections of massive studies which firmly establish causes

Right! Well said. I recognized the first part, but not the second.

johngoldfine said...

Food is always attractive, always repulsive--whole religions revolve around the so-called purity of what one is or isn't allowed to eat. Whole cults revolve around the so-called 'cleansing' of food wastes from one's body. And whole psychopathologies revolve around eating and excretion.

And then, of course, back in the real world, certain foods actually do make certain people ill, permanently or temporarily. (Remind me to tell you sometime about my battle royale with a nice shrimp cocktail near Kenmore, just before a Red Sox game. Final score Shrimp 1, John 0.)

So, it's no wonder that food is the locus of immense amounts of wishful thinking, magical thinking, emotionality, desire, fear, disgust--and no wonder that people are vulnerable to hucksters, con artists, fellow delusionists, fads and fancies, pseudo-science, and specific hysteria.

laura k said...

Very true, John. Thanks for providing more context.

Amy said...

Good piece, Laura. I've long ago adopted the view my father-in-law always espoused (he was a pharmacist and didn't really live by these words, but he often asserted them as a guidepost): Everything in moderation. Of course, that will not work for those with food allergies or sensitivities, but for the rest of us, as long as you don't overdo anything----salt, sugar, fat, carbs, etc.--- reasonable amounts of anything are fine. I try to avoid processed foods, but I am not a fanatic about it.

I do have some food issues. My biggest problems are with foods that upset my stomach like fried foods, dairy, and a few other items. Those I avoid like the plague! But not because of advertising---based on trial and error and experience.

laura k said...

That's one of my mother's big sayings, too. Like your FIL, my mother does not live by this rule, and is extremely strict with her diet.

Everything in moderation is also very difficult for people like me with addictive personalities! It's gotten easier as I get older, since the consequences of overdoing have become so severe. :)

About gluten, though, most people have absolutely no reason to limit it. There's nothing inherently unhealthy about gluten. It's just a type of protein.

Amy said...

I agree. I don't think about gluten at all when I select food.

Now in the past three days I have suddenly noticed references to this Paleo diet (which I assume what you also were referring to---some caveman diet?). Just another new fad... Remember when they said coffee was bad, then it was good. Wine was bad, then it was good. Nothing is bad occasionally; nothing is good in excess.

But I, too, can overdo it. Put a bowl of jelly beans in front of me or a fresh loaf of bread? No stopping me if I don't watch myself. Sadly but perhaps fortunately, two of my biggest addictions are foods my system can no longer process: chocolate and ICE CREAM. Boy, do I miss chocolate ice cream. In heaven, I am eating nothing but. :)

laura k said...

I always remember you in gamethreads, getting ice cream after dinner on the cape (?) . Awful to have to give it up!

Coffee and wine, two things I love to have in excess. Coffee, I still do. Wine, I'm much more moderate these days - really have no choice.

And yes, Paleo Diet. It's a Big Thing now.

John F said...

OK, but can I convince you to accept a banner ad for my new line of zero-calorie artisanal (and, what the hell, artesian) bottled waters?

laura k said...

Hm, zero-calorie water, you say? That sounds like something really new and different! But tell me, is it gluten-free?

John F said...

It's whatever my marketing department needs it to be.

laura k said...

Hey, I have an idea! Why don't you write a guest post on my blog extolling the benefits of your new artisnal water? That will save me the trouble of writing a post, plus be a great service to wmtc readers.

(Bloggers get these "special offers" all the time.)

Amy said...

Yes, I miss those days of ice cream after dinner on the Cape...

Coffee and wine fell off my list years ago. Each had quite a negative impact on me. Fortunately, I was never a big coffee drinker, and I've found substitutes for wine!

laura k said...

Coffee and red wine are life-blood to me. I hope I never have to live without them!

Gunner said...

Is the artisanal water dihydrogen monoxide free?

James Redekop said...

Non-celiac people who go "gluten-free" out of some misguided sense of that it's healthier are often still eating plenty of gluten. They just don't realize it. I suspect that most of them have no idea what "gluten" is (which is how we end up with stores selling gluten-free eggs, or whatever). I wouldn't be surprised if most of them thought it was a preservative invented by Dow.

This captures the whole "X-free" food concept pretty nicely.

John F said...

@Gunner: the DHMO content of my products are well within the legal maximum! And since my lobbyists helped to write the regulations, you can be assured that all is well...

laura k said...

LOL @ gluten-free eggs and who is writing the regs. :)