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Focus on Agriculture

July 23, 2014

Food Ingredient Fears Target Wheat

By Stewart Truelsen

It’s one of the most iconic scenes from America’s Heartland—combines sweeping slowly over golden fields of wheat, sun peaking from behind puffy white clouds, trucks on the edge of fields hauling wheat to silos that look like prairie castles from afar.

But every now and then the sky darkens and a thunderstorm rolls through and that’s what is happening to wheat with the gluten-free diet craze. Wheat has become a victim of food ingredient fears.

There is a medical basis for certain people to avoid bread and other foods made from wheat. These are people with celiac disease, who cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. This genetically based, autoimmune disorder affects an estimated 1 in 133 persons, fewer than 1 percent of the population.

Celiac disease damages the lining of the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. There are several hundred symptoms of celiac disease although some people with the disease have no symptoms at all. Typical symptoms include fatigue, depression, bloating and abdominal pain.

The only way to obtain a diagnosis is through a blood test and endoscopy biopsy. The Celiac Disease Foundation warns people not to attempt self-diagnosis. Yet, that’s exactly what many seem to be doing. They either think they have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, for which there is no recommended test.

According to NPD Group, a market research firm, nearly 30 percent of the people responding to a recent survey said they were trying to avoid gluten.

Fears about gluten now go way beyond gluten intolerance. They include unsubstantiated claims linking it to dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. In other words, diseases and health problems that have baffled medical researchers are now suddenly linked to eating gluten. Crazy as it seems, some people believe this.

Cornell University researchers are amazed at how easily food misconceptions spread without any real evidence. In one study, they found that people who feared food the most were better educated but got most of their food facts from Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter, blogs or friends. Compared to the rest of the population, they also had a greater need to share their opinions with others.

The Wall Street Journal counted 1,000 groups on Facebook with “gluten-free” in the name including a dating group for gluten-free singles.

It may seem like hysterical nonsense, but don’t tell food marketers and restaurants that. They are cashing in on the trend with gluten-free products and menus. The same holds true for the publishers of diet books and self-appointed experts like a popular neurologist who advises everyone to stop eating all grains. This has become the next big wave after fat-free and non-GMO foods.

Except for a small segment of the population that can’t tolerate the protein, avoiding gluten in the diet has no proven basis for being a healthier choice. In fact, gluten-free products may contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar, and typically they cost more.

Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.