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Are Gluten-free Foods a Waste of Money for Most People?
Celiac.com 05/16/2013 - As more Americans then ever are looking to either reduce the amount of gluten in their diets or to eliminate it entirely, many nutritionists are saying that cutting gluten carelessly can be unnecessary and unhealthy, while others are pointing out that it is likely a waste of money for those who do not suffer from celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
In a recent poll by market-research company NDP Group, one in three adults said they were looking to cut down or eliminate gluten from their diets. Those are the highest numbers since NDP began asking the question in 2009. In fact, in 2012, TIME magazine put the gluten-free movement at #2 on its top 10 list of food trends.
Current estimates put the number of Americans with celiac disease (diagnosed or not) at about 3 million. Other studies indicate that as many as many as one in 16 Americans may have a less-severe sensitivity to gluten that can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms.
For people with celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, avoiding gluten is not merely beneficial, it is necessary for good health. For everyone else, though, avoiding gluten is unnecessary, provides questionable benefit, and can increase food costs substantially.
One thing to remember, is that junk food is junk food, whether is contains gluten or not. Many people who do not have celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, and who feel better after cutting gluten out of their diet, are really benefiting simply because they have eliminated junk foods and/or breaded, fried foods from their diet, not because they have a problem eating gluten.
On the other hand, many others who do not have celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, and who simply replace junky, processed foods with gluten-free versions are gaining little or no benefit, and are, in fact, spending money unnecessarily. That's because gluten-free foods usually cost more than their gluten-containing counterparts.
How much more? When researchers from Dalhousie Medical School at Dalhousie University in Canada compared prices for 56 standard grocery items with similar gluten-free items, they found that the gluten-free products cost about 2½ times more than the gluten-containing versions.
With more and more food manufacturers producing more and more gluten-free products, the gluten-free market in the United States is projected to grow from $4.2 billion last year to $6.6 billion by 2017.
But that still doesn't add up to the NPD Group’s finding that 29% of Americans are trying to avoid gluten. The numbers suggest that many consumers are staying away from gluten simply because it’s trendy to do so.
It is likely true that many people are following gluten-free diets unnecessarily, but it is also true that many more people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity remain undiagnosed, and the exact nature of those conditions needs to be better understood to know who will fully benefit from a gluten-free diet. In the meantime, look for the gluten-free market to grow, and look for much of that growth to be driven by people without an official diagnosis that actually requires a gluten-free diet.
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Jefferson Adams is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. His poems, essays and photographs have appeared in Antioch Review, Blue Mesa Review, CALIBAN, Hayden's Ferry Review, Huffington Post, the Mississippi Review, and Slate among others.
He is a member of both the National Writers Union, the International Federation of Journalists, and covers San Francisco Health News for Examiner.com.View all articles by Jefferson Adams
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