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.

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