Is a Gluten Allergy Just a Fad?

Having a gluten allergy or sensitivity has become trendy.

So much so that is has become fodder for comedians.

via glutenfreesociety.org

via glutenfreesociety.org

Firstly, let me point out that clearly there are a lot of people who are utilizing "avoiding gluten" as a way to try to lose weight without having any specific gluten-related diagnosis. (Or some other benefit, but losing weight is certainly the most common reason for someone to just randomly try going gluten-free.) I don't have a particular problem with this. Experimenting with avoiding gluten is not harmful, if a bit inconvenient, and may actually be helpful. It can be helpful in one of two ways for those who have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon: 

  1. It causes said bandwagoner to dial back their refined carbohydrate consumption since most processed grains contain gluten. Removing processed junk is always a good thing and can definitely result in weight loss if those foods are not simply replaced with gluten-free versions of the same vein.
  2. Said bandwagoner turns out to actually have an underlying sensitivity to gluten that has caused symptoms for a long time (e.g. gas, bloating, skin irritations, inflammation etc.) but because the symptoms were a constant occurrence, he/she never made the connection between food and the symptoms. By removing gluten, these symptoms that he/she had become accustomed to disappear.

Those two reasons are why I don't have a problem with people experimenting with a gluten-free diet on their own. They may actually get some benefit. If they don't see any improvements after a month, then gluten is probably not an issue and not worth avoiding. Of course, there are also some pitfalls with eating gluten-free:

  1. Simply substituting gluten-free processed crap for gluten-containing processed crap. This does not benefit your health in any way. In fact, some gluten free products have higher glycemic indexes than their gluten-containing counterparts.
  2. Thinking that anything that is gluten-free is magically healthy. NOPE. Sorry, but a gluten-free cupcake is still a cupcake. This is similar to #1, but extra dangerous because it can go beyond substituting to causing over-eating. Similar to the SnackWells problem of the 80's and 90's where people ate boxes of fat-free cookies, slapping a label on desserts does not turn them into vegetables. (Vegetables ARE gluten-free, however. Eat them.)

Some people like to argue that going gluten-free can cause nutrient deficiencies.  This is NOT TRUE. Gluten is not a requirement to health. What is true, however, is that grains are often people's main source of B-vitamins and fiber. This doesn't have to be the case, but since Americans (and other western nations) eat A LOT of grains, they tend to be the most prolific source. Be sure to eat a varied whole foods diet focused on vegetables and you will be fine. 

What about people who DO need to eat gluten-free?

Okay, here's the thing. I have noticed recently that some people who truly are allergic to gluten (e.g. Celiac disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis/other autoimmune disorders) or have established sensitivities to gluten are now being accused of having a fake gluten problem. This is not fair. First of all, many people have an allergy to gluten in the true ALLERGY sense: meaning an IgE reaction. That is the definition of an allergy. Other people have different immunoglobulin reactions that are not IgE and those fall under the category of SENSITIVITIES because only IgE reactions are labeled as allergies. 

Both of these situations are real and neither of these categories of people should be consuming gluten.

Let me reiterate.

There is such a thing as a gluten-allergy AND there is such a thing as a gluten-sensitivity. Neither are fake or a fad. People can lie about it, sure, but the diagnosis does exist.

The good news is that since gluten-free became a mainstream idea, people who should absolutely not eat gluten have many more options available to them, better labeling, and restaurants now understand what gluten is. That is great. 

The fact that people roll their eyes at people avoiding gluten is not great. 

Here is my opinion about what you should do if someone says they are gluten-free.

Say OKAY with a smile.

Then you have a couple of options.

  • If you are planning a dinner party, inquire "Is there any way that I can accommodate you?" Most people who are gluten-free take it upon themselves to make sure they are taken care of without being a burden. Most likely they will offer to bring a gluten-free dish or have a snack before coming so that they can eat less at the party without going hungry.
  • If you are at a restaurant, inquire "Will you be able to find options here to accommodate you?" Honestly, most restaurants these days are prepared for gluten-free customers. Most likely, your dinning partner will be fine. You can always ask the waiter.
  • If it just randomly came up in conversation, either just say okay with a smile or ask nicely about what caused the shift, how's it going or if he/she has noticed any improvements.

Easy-peasy.

No need to be all judgmental, roll your eyes and immediately start fabricating reasons in your mind about all of the supposed "fake" reasons this person has made the choice to go gluten-free. 

Yes, I realize that some people are just trying to be trendy or trying a new diet for kicks.

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Oh well.

Seriously.

Unless you just spent all day in the kitchen making this person a beautiful gluten-containing meal only for he/she to stride in declaring that from this day on he/she is avoiding gluten for no seemingly particular reason, then it doesn't really matter what this person will or will not eat. (And if someone does do that to you, and if that person doesn't immediately spy your hard work and declare that this new diet begins TOMORROW, then that person is an asshole. Throw your beautiful pie in his/her face.)

I realize that if the impetus is on you to cook for a gluten-free individual and you have no idea how to do this, it can be scary and frustrating. Gluten-free cooking, I promise, isn't that hard. But, that is a whole other topic. This post is concerned mainly with those who are not all that affected by their friend's, colleague's, random acquaintance's diet choices.

When it doesn't really affect us all that much how someone else eats, don't be rude. 

The last and final caveat

This post is really about good people who either have a true gluten issue or want to experiment with gluten-free eating. I'm not talking about people who aggressively inundate you with details of their eating habits when you never asked. You might want to stop hanging out with those people. They sound insufferable.

And even more importantly, this post was not referring to people who seem to have a truly unhealthy relationship with their food. Othorexia nervosa is an eating disorder associated with extreme obsessiveness with eating healthy. If the latest manifestation of someone's fixation on healthy eating has come to include gluten-free eating, the previous rules do not apply. Instead, you really ought to entertain the possibility that this person might need some help. Be kind. Always be kind and point this person in the direction of someone with the skills to intervene.

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

Label Overload

So many labels, what do they all mean?  

There are way more labels out there in food-world than I could possibly hope to go over, but I can at least hit some of the big ones.  The big thing to understand is the basic concept of what labels actually mean, and what they don't.

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Before you get completely overwhelmed by the vast array of tiny designs that can appear on foods, first understand this: descriptive words that are not an actual label are part of a marketing campaign. They are not well mediated or well substantiated.  For example: "made with whole grains" or "supports your child's immunity" don't really mean much.  There may be some whole grains in the product, or it may contain some amount of vitamin C, but the implication they are trying to give probably doesn't align with reality.  Bear in mind, they haven't actually tested whether or not eating their crappy processed food improves health.  They know that a particular nutrient is associated with health, so they pumped some of that one nutrient into an otherwise completely terrible "food" and are now using it to make a health claim.  DO NOT BE FOOLED BY MARKETING PLOYS.

An actual label, on the other hand, must be obtained through a certification process. Whichever certifying board is responsible for each label will have their own rules that must be met.  When a food or product has been validated, it will be able to display that label on its packaging (or as a sticker), thus informing you, the consumer, that the certifying body guarantees that the product meets their standards. 

And one more point before we get into some specific labels, the following are words that are not verified and therefore can pretty much be claimed by anything that isn't an obvious lie: Natural and Sustainable. Sorry folks, neither one of those words is truly regulated.  With that said, lots of products that claim to use sustainable practices actually do, so do your own research with those.  As for natural, companies seem to love that word a little too much for my comfort.  Get to know your companies!

Also, animal related terms to know:

Cage free: There really isn't third party regulation.  The implication is that the birds are not in cages, but usually they are kept in extremely overcrowded, dark warehouses.

Free Roaming/Free Range: Defined for poultry meat only.  The USDA regulates that they must have access to the outdoors.  Of course, whether or not they actually go outdoors, and how much time or space they have is unregulated.  For laying hens (eggs) the term free range is not regulated.

Pastured: No legal definition or verification.  The implication is the animals were raised on pasture, but  the claim is unverified.

Grass Fed: There are multiple definitions. Note that the USDA grassfed logo allows cattle to be confined on feedlots with cut grass shipped in on trucks.  The American Grassfed Association logo verifies that the animals were raised on pasture, without confinement, antibiotics or added hormones.

Humane: It implies the use of humane practices, but it is completely unregulated.

 

Now, onto some Common Labels:

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Referring to Non-Genetically Modified Organisms (common ones being corn, soy, canola, beet sugar). Products must be deemed compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard.  They require testing of all ingredients that are being grown commercially in GMO form. They have an Action Threshold of 0.9%, which is the same as laws in the European Union.

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Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that some people have an allergy or sensitivity to.  The Gluten-Free Certification Organization is an independent service that conducts field inspections to verify that products are truly gluten-free. 

 

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The Fair Trade certification is designed and audited to ensure equitable trade practices at every level of the supply chain. To earn a license from Fair Trade USA in order to use the Fair Trade Certified™ label on their products, companies must buy from certified farms and organizations, pay Fair Trade prices and premiums and submit to supply chain audits.

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This is the major one so here's the story:

According to the USDA: Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Crop Farms:

(They must have 3 years with no application of prohibited materials before being declared Organic)

  • Implementation of an Organic System Plan, with proactive fertility systems; conservation measures; environmentally sound manure, weed, disease, and pest management practices; and soil building crop rotation system
  • Use of natural inputs and/or approved synthetic substances on the National List
  • No use of prohibited substances while certified
  • No use of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs)
  • No sewage sludge or irradiation
  • Use of organic seeds, when commercially available
  • Use of organic seedlings for annual crops
  • Restrictions on use of raw manure and compost
  • Maintenance of buffer zones, depending on risk of contamination
  • No residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of the EPA tolerance

For livestock operations:

  • Implementation of an Organic Livestock Plan
  • Mandatory outdoor access, when seasonally appropriate
  • Access to pasture for ruminants
  • No antibiotics, growth hormones, slaughter byproducts, or GMOs
  • 100% organic feed and approved feed supplements
  • Sound animal husbandry and preventative health care
  • Organic management from last third of gestation or 2nd day after hatching
  • No rotating animals between organic and non-organic management

Single Ingredients

On foods like fruits and vegetables, look for a small sticker version of the USDA Organic label or check the signage in your produce section for this seal. The word "organic" and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.

Multi-Ingredient Foods

Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods use the following classification system to indicate their use of organic ingredients.

100% Organic: Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal. 

Organic: These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the National Organic Program. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.

Made With Organic Ingredients: Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.

Other: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.

 

Of course, here is the ultimate tip for avoiding getting overwhelmed by packaging: buy very few things that actually have packaging.  I get that some whole foods come in packaging: bread, eggs, spices, grains etc. But generally those packages are mostly transparent and therefore not quite as overwhelming as, say, a cereal box. Boxed, processed foods are a marketing division's dream.  The entire point of processed foods is to purchase large quantities of cheap commodity ingredients, process them in various ways, and then charge a huge markup for "added value."  How do they inform you of just how much "value" they've added? By plastering claims and cute cartoons all over the packaging.  These are marketing devices.  The claims they make are typically unsubstantiated and loosely regulated.  For the real story, read the ingredients list. Those are really the only words that matter.  But again, if you are buying, say, a squash, there isn't any packaging to be found.  Between a box and a squash: go with the squash.   

Yes, to further complicate things, if you are rockin' and simply want to decide between various good things: do you buy organic or local or fair trade? I say ideally buy as much organically grown food as possible.  Hopefully, it will be labeled, but if you know your farmer and he isn't certified but adheres to organic practices, buy it.  Aim for local and in season as much as possible.  (I love buying local, it's the easiest way to know your farmer. But if that farmer sprays lots of pesticides and plants gmo crops- no way! That means he's selling contaminated food AND contaminating my water supply!) For imports from countries with poor working conditions, buy fair trade.  But to be fair, as long as you are deciding between organic versus local produce instead of Lucky Charms versus Fruit Loops, you deserve a massive shout out because you are awesome and I'll call it a WIN either way!

Comment

Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.