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.