Why Is Everyone Buying Gluten-Free Foods When They Don’t Have To?

The scourge of the single-word diet.

Math is not my strong suit, but something seems wrong here: A new study tells us that one-third of Americans are cutting back on gluten, but less than one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, the condition that is the only reason for omission of gluten from the diet. So, why is everyone else buying gluten-free foods when they don’t have to?

Cooking is something I’m good at, so when my daughter, a senior in film studies at Drexel, was shooting a project with a group of students and asked me to be “Kraft Services” for the day, I was more than willing.

She told me one of the girls was gluten-free. I had already planned the menu: chicken, slow-cooked in soy sauce and scallions, meant to be eaten in a lettuce or tortilla wrap, stir-fried vegetables, sesame noodles, green salad with various dressing choices, edamame, rice crackers, and Thai chili dip. For the gluten-free girl, I thought, no problem.

When the students trooped in, starving but rushed for time before their next shot, I had everything ready. Gluten-Free Girl came in, said hello, and asked, “What’s gluten-free?”

I replied, “Everything but the noodles and rice crackers?” But my question mark hung in the air.

I got out of the kitchen, and she rummaged through the recycling, reading bottles of oil and soy and sauces to confirm what she could have. Luckily, the answer was everything but the noodles and crackers.

It was only last Easter that we went to brunch at Casona in Collingswood, saw the little “GF’s” on the menu, and the table of us took to guessing. “Good Food?” “Great Fun?” “Gas Forming?” “Gaucho Farmed?” Sure, we were drinking mojitos on empty stomachs, but WTF was GF?

When my middle child, Hayley, was 10 years old, her petite size had our doctor concerned that she might have celiac disease. My understanding of celiac was even more rudimentary than it is now, but Hayley’s diet then consisted of pretzels, saltines, bagels and, when she was feeling adventurous, tuna fish. We once went on vacation and on day three sans schedule, my husband and I conferred and realized that she had subsisted for those three days on Doritos. Sure, I was concerned for her digestive health, but her tininess never worried me, and even as I stood in the doctor’s office, I thought, “How is she going to survive?” and “Can we really never order a pizza again?”

It’s almost a decade later, and GF products are everywhere, but I’m not sure if any non-celiac-sufferer understands it any better.

Is gluten-free cool because Gwyneth Paltrow says it is? Maybe it’s also cool because it’s expensive. Everything that costs more is better, right? Even my poor math skills show me that paying 242 percent more for a needlessly gluten-free product doesn’t make much sense. Time magazine named gluten free the number-two food trend of last year, with its market at $4.2 billion in the U.S. last year and predicted to grow to $6.6 billion by 2017. GF is the new normal.

You’d think this would make celiac sufferers happy, right? More choice, more options, both at the grocery and in restaurants, but apparently the opposite is true. True celiac sufferers get eye rolls from waiters who are just … over it.

Many people think avoiding gluten will help them lose weight, but this isn’t true either. There’s plenty of chubby celiac sufferers, just as there are plenty of chubby vegetarians. We can’t focus on eating or not eating one thing and ignore the rest of the label. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that food manufacturers have seen significant sales increases after they put the word “protein” on the label. Like the GF products, the calorie counts in protein-rich products are high, and most Americans already eat about twice as much protein as they need each day.

These single-nutrient focuses, “fat-free,” “fiber-rich,” “ gluten-free,” “protein-rich,” are just like the search for the magic pill, the Sensa fairy dust sprinkle. We want an easy fix, an easy way to be healthy (and sexy). The good news: We have a buffet (forgive me) of choices to make in America, and a plethora of options. We’re rarely away from food offerings. The bad news: We have to make those choices without focusing on a packaging label or guidance from Miley Cyrus.

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • unknownperson@yahoo.com

    There are people that do not have celiacs disease that have wheat allergies. These people have to be careful with what they eat and turn to the gluten free products. Do your research!

  • Felix Muzquiz

    Celiac disease is not the only reason to avoid gluten. Women with Thyroid issues also need to avoid gluten and certain vegetables. Also it’s “Craft” services, as in a union gig, not Kraft services like processed foods.

  • Debbie Woolard

    I am a non-celiac gluten intolerant person. When I eat anything with gluten, my pain level goes from a 2-3 up to a 6-7 or higher. So being celiac is NOT the only reason why someone would need to avoid celiac.

  • http://www.facebook.com/henrybing Henry Bingaman

    Math may not be your strong suit, but you’re probably better at it than research. Seriously… open up wikipedia or something before you display your ignorance to the world.

    Couple points to start with. Soy Sauce is generally not gluten free and rice crackers often are. So hopefully that poor girl didn’t have celiac.

    Second, celiacs are very happy about this trend. Getting an eye roll from a waiter is much less painful than getting a couple day’s worth of nausea and stomach cramps because the waiter didn’t have any idea what has gluten and fed someone something like soy sauce out of pure ignorance.

    And finally, it is true that you can stay “chubby” even if you’re gluten free. But fat is not the only reason for choosing a healthier diet that’s less disruptive to your digestive system.

  • Sean Mitchell

    I am less concerned with people eating gluten-free foods for no reason than I am with someone who lets their daughter eat nothing but Doritos for three days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristinabuchthal Kristina Buchthal Regal

    Are you really asking?

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeniseDrew Denise Noglutenhere Drew

    You proved by your cooking techniques just how others do it, haphazardly – for shame, and it seems mostly without any caring. This is the reason many celiac sufferers don’t trust people to cook for them in a restaurant or in homes. Some may wonder why celiacs are compulsive about checking and asking 3 or 4 times… it is the oh-well attitude that people give. IF people only knew how sick we get maybe others would take it very seriously. GF girl had a name? Maybe people buy the costly glutenfree items so they can feel normal again, do you really know what it’s like to go someplace and be the only one not able to partake in the celebration meal? You can hear them say..wait, you can have vegetables… or you’re the one with the plain bowl of lettuce in front of you. Give me a break, you invite us, but don’t care. Have you ever witnessed a celiac youngster go to a birthday party and sit in the corner because they are left out? Do you know how many children & adults are bullied because of food issues?? I wish people would STOP being so insensitive with their journalist #noaboutnothing BS. Live like a celiac for 30 days, then please come back & write….. because our lives depend on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/blake.pinter Blake Pinter

    I don’t mean to belittle the plight of true Celiac sufferers or people with some other type of gluten problem, nor (as I read the piece) do I imagine did the author, rather I think the point is how many people tend to jump on food trends. As a vegetarian for over 25 years I would like to consider myself pretty well read on food nutrition, and what I have consistently read is that the number of actual Celiac sufferers is drastically less than the people who claim to be gluten intolerant, as well as many other food allergies. In the example cited don’t you think a true Celiac sufferer would know whether everyday staples such as soy sauce and noodles would be gluten free? As a person with a chosen food limitation, I make sure to know such information and to tell my hosts far in advance of my eating constraints, rather than just expecting. And in all my years have found in almost all situations people to be totally accommodating to my needs when I have given them fair forewarning. So to repeat, yes let’s all learn a little more about gluten intolerance (and other food issues) and be accommodating to those people, but lets not just blindly believe all the people walking around claiming food issues truly have them.

    • Darlene Veg An

      “As a vegetarian for over 25 years I would like to consider myself pretty well read on food nutrition”

      Putting aside the fact there is so much cruelty involved in dairy, eggs and honey, I am assuming you don’t know how harmful they are to one’s health? Check out the facebook page “THE BLOODY DAIRY INDUSTRY.” They have a veganism guide that also includes nutrition info by doctors who promote a plant-based diet for health reasons.

  • http://twitter.com/annalaurabrown annalaurabrown

    Actually that’s not quite correct. I have a severe gluten intolerance allergy and am allergic to wheat but I do not have celliac. There is a difference and both types of people have to eat gluten free.

  • Ed

    The bigger issue is the girl who rummaged through the trash to sort out what she could eat rather than discretely bringing her own lunch. I live in trendy, hipster Northampton, Massachusetts where – as a doctor friend of mine says – everyone here is a little too aware of their bowels. Yes, some people get very, very sick from gluten, my wife included, but the writer is not disputing that. She is merely pointing out that many people are just jumping on the next trend, which came somewhere between large wooden jewelry and free range yogurt. If I were that film student’s dad, I would have told her that her sensitivity to gluten takes a back seat to her insensitivity to her friend’s mother, who made a beautiful lunch.

  • Danya

    I agree with other commenters – Celiac is not the only reason one needs to remove gluten from their diets. I personally suffer from Gluten Intolerance, much different than Celiac. Yet, I still need to be just as careful about reading labels and asking home chefs and wait staff about the specific ingredients used to prepare my food. And it makes sense that one third of America is cutting back on gluten, statistically 1 in 3 people suffer from some sort of gluten related health issue. Please do your gluten free friends a favor, and don’t invite them over for dinner. I truly believe it’s not a fad, but a lifestyle that is here to stay and I am forever grateful for the multiple gfree products, menu options and well educated restaurant staff – it has made my life SO much easier!