This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Gluten and Allergen Free Expo in Chicago. It was an eye opening experience on multiple fronts. When my mother in law was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 1997, knowledge about gluten intolerances was little and gluten free foods or labeling scarce. She and I learned what she could and couldn’t eat sometimes the hard way. Much of this has changed particularly over the last 4 or 5 years. Gluten Free labeling has improved quite a bit. It isn’t perfect, but it is better than it used to be. AND, perhaps more importantly, gluten free foods have started popping up in even the most mundane of grocery stores like Walmart. No longer do you have to travel to a big city where there is a Whole Paycheck or a Trader Joes to find gluten free products.
BUT, and here is the big but, are all these gluten free foods really helping those with gluten intolerances or actually hurting them? In my humble opinion, they are in fact hurting them. If you read the labels on these mostly processed and packaged foods, you will notice a lot of other ingredients besides wheat and wheat derivatives. The ones that particularly concern me are sugar, fat and salt. I was mortified upon reading many of the labels on these products how many of them were absolutely loaded with refined sugars, unhealthy fats and tons of salt. Sure you won’t have an allergic reaction to these foods, but in the long run, will eating them be even worse for you than the wheat reaction would have been to begin with. I maintain in many ways yes.
Just because tons of cakes, cookies, pies, crackers, sauces, gravies, cereals, sweets, etc. are available to you that are gluten free doesn’t make them any healthier. I feel like some individuals take a little license to indulge thinking that because they are gluten free they MUST be healthier alternatives to their non-gluten free counterparts. Many of the individuals I saw there were indeed on the plump side and probably needed to be cautious in particular about fat intake as well as glycemic index. What was even more disturbing to me was the almost obsessive nature with which people flocked to demos about these tasty treats using pre-packaged mixes that had things in them that they most certainly should be wary of.
I appreciate the fact that awareness of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance has increased and I think it is wonderful, but I think that manufacturers see an opportunity to exploit people who are already vulnerable just to make a buck without thinking of the consequences in the long run. Creating a group of individuals who are not only unable to eat certain foods but are now suffering from other medical complications that are directly attributable to what they can and are eating is unacceptable.
We as advocates for those with food allergies in general have to also be advocates for health in general. People need to be made aware of the dangers of these foods and to read labels hyper sensitively. They also need to be made aware of the cash cow that the gluten and allergen free industry is to many manufacturers. Be suspect of all pre-packaged or processed foods. I understand convenience and believe me I am not such a huge food snob as to think that people are going to cook and bake from scratch every day. I get that. But helping people come up with ways to feed themselves quickly yet healthily is imperative if we are to see a decline in diet related illnesses. That’s what I was trying more than anything to do in my own gluten free cookbook. Stop obsessing on desserts and those foods that are not necessarily the best choices for you to eat daily and focus on those things that are tasty, healthy and fulfilling. I think this is the direction for the future of gluten and allergen free lifestyles.