Random Rhapsody: Bootin’ the gluten
November 12, 2013
Chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and peas is one of my favorite comfort foods when the weather turns cold. The sweetness of the peas combined with the creamy potatoes is a match made in heaven.
I eat my peas and mashed potatoes Three Stooges-style — put some mashed potatoes on a butter knife then smash them into the peas. Delightful!
Never having much luck using real potatoes, I'm a loyal fan of Betty Crocker Potato Buds, but when I got to the market to buy some, the only box on the shelf had "Gluten Free" prominently splashed across the front.
Having neither a real or perceived problem with gluten, I've had no need or desire to evaluate gluten-free products, so I studied the box to determine if the pricey little flakes would taste any different.
Finding only a statistic that said 1 in 133 people have celiac disease, I decided I'd better go for the regular store brand, I suppose brimming with gluten, fearing the taste of the trendy buds might spoil my much anticipated culinary delight.
However, the statistic did peak my interest, but with Betty Crocker not being on my list of reliable sources of medical information, I did some checking, and sure enough, 1 in 133 people do have celiac disease.
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That means for less than 1 percent of the population, eating gluten is asking for more trouble than questioning the tactics of Tahoe bear advocates after inadvertently leaving your kitchen window unlocked and seducing a bear into making a "soft entry." A lot more.
Going gluten-free may be a choice for some, but for people with celiac disease, it can be a matter of life or death if left untreated.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder causing the immune system of people with the disease to form antibodies to gluten that attack the intestinal lining inhibiting absorption of nutrients.
There's a blood test to screen for the disease, but an intestinal biopsy is required to confirm the diagnosis.
Gluten sensitivity, however, "lacks any defining medical tests," says Daniel Leffler, MD, MS, of the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, in a 2011 health.com article. Even without a test, Dr. Leffler estimates that 10 percent of Americans are sensitive to gluten.
Some argue that going gluten-free is a healthy lifestyle choice, rationalizing that gluten is a relatively recently introduced component to our diet in evolutionary terms. There's no scientific evidence for that.
"People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion (of people who eliminate gluten from their diet) will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They'll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive," Dr. Leffler said in a February 2013 article on the Harvard Health blog.
Nevertheless, according to the NPD Group, a third of Americans are cutting gluten from their diet, resulting in the explosion of a currently $4 billion industry that's expected to grow to more than $6 billion by 2017.
With no test for gluten sensitivity, a third of Americans cutting out gluten and only 10 percent being gluten sensitive, that means roughly 70 percent of gluten-free dieters have mistakenly self-diagnosed and are wasting their money.
That still leaves me wondering how it is that just five years ago "gluten" was as foreign to our lexicon as "Obamacare"?
I'm guessing the answer to that question has its roots more in psychology than pathology.
To illustrate my point, my wife recently volunteered to help at my son's elementary school fundraising walk. While chatting with another mother, her fellow volunteer's son suddenly appeared seemingly out of breath after completing only a few laps.
Not knowing anything about the situation, an unknown woman purposefully veered off the track as she fast walked by so she was certain to be heard blurting out "gotta get that kid off the gluten" while his mother attended to her son who was choking on a piece of popcorn kernel stuck in his throat.
The stranger wasn't making a diagnosis; she was making an assumption, as do many about gluten being the culprit for their ailments.
Granted, few people would behave as she did; however, her patronizing comment speaks to the "bandwagon" mentality of people who get caught-up in trends and fads.
The bandwagon effect occurs when the probability of individuals adopting a belief increases with the proportion of individuals who have already done so, without regard to any underlying evidence for the belief — everybody "hops on the bandwagon" — explaining how gluten-free products have come to fill grocery store shelves growing into a multibillion dollar industry overnight.
The truth is, the majority of those "bootin' the gluten" likely feel better because they're making better overall dietary choices or simply think they'll feel better. The mind is the most powerful healing tool of all.
Nick De Fiori holds a bachelor's degree in earth science and has a passion for mountain environments. A Truckee resident, he enjoys spending his free time with his wife and two young boys exploring the wilderness during the summer and skiing in the winter. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.