The gluten-free con

Edited excerpts from a recent Observer Food Monthly collaboration with Dr Ali Khavandi and Dara Mohammadi

glutenfreeFor the sagacious shopper, food packaging that yells about what is not in it and only whispers about what is should always be a red flag. This is nowhere more true than with gluten-free foods.

These foods exist because about 1% of the population have an autoimmune condition called coeliac disease triggered by hypersensitivity to gluten. Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in grains, and people with the condition must adhere to a strict, hugely restrictive and life-long diet if they want to live without severe symptoms and complications including stomach pains, diarrhoea, vomiting, anaemia and fatigue.

Then there are people who are gluten intolerant. It’s a tricky concept to define but one that probably affects about another 1% of the population who have the milder symptoms of coeliac (it’s not something that can be medically diagnosed) without lasting damage to their gut.

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Interesting, then, that about one in five of us — or 20% vs the 2% who would actually benefit — buys or has bought gluten-free food. “Only people with coeliac disease are likely to benefit from a gluten-free diet,” says Dalvinder Mandair, a Consultant Gastroenterologist in the NHS. “For the others there’s no physiological mechanism by which not eating gluten will help them, but because gluten intolerance is such a subjective thing it can be open to persuasion.”

Open to persuasion it has been. That 18 in every 20 customers are buying gluten-free products because of a perceived but non-existent health benefit will make folks from the gluten-free (“Free-From”) industry squeal with delight as they dive into their Scrooge McDuck-like money vault. It’s certainly good marketing. But let’s not be like McDuck’s namesake and bah humbug people’s attempts to feel healthy. This, of course, is fine as long as people’s decisions are well-informed. It’s at this point that things start to break down for gluten-free foods.

They’re often more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts, and to compensate for the elasticity gluten gives to things like cakes and bread, manufacturers spoon in more sugar, e-numbers and additives. It’s a long way from the healthy, natural image they like to invoke.

If you keep avoiding food with gluten in it you’ll not be eating much fibre. Other than the many dietary benefits of eating soluble and insoluble fibres, a diet lacking in fibre can increase your risk of lower-bowel cancer and cardiovascular disease.

If you’ve not got coeliac disease, you should ask yourself whether it’s really worth going gluten-free.

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