Friday, August 1, 2014

Gluten-free - A Meaningful Label?

A few weeks ago The Wall Street Journal published an article looking at how wary Americans have become of gluten and how food companies and restaurant chains are taking advantage of their fears.  

The article states: “Many health experts say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free except for a small sliver of the population whose bodies can't process the protein,” referring to the less than 1% of the population with celiac disease.  Gluten is the substance that gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture.  Wheat, barley and rye contain gluten, which is well suited for baking, but sets off an autoimmune response that can damage the intestines of people with celiac disease.  Another perhaps 18 million may have gluten sensitivity, but that does not explain why about 30% of the population has picked up on this fad.  That means about 70 million people who shouldn’t need to bother about it are being taken in.

The article goes on to explain, “according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar.”  It is a point some food makers don't dispute, saying they are simply responding to consumer demand without making health claims.”  Later in the article are a few examples comparing the nutrition labels of the same products with and without the gluten-free label, showing the nutritional differences; but also that they vary from product to product meaning the gluten-free label is no guarantee of healthier eating for those without a problem.

The key point is made very well by the WSJ.  “Americans have become preoccupied with what they eat on a whole new level, focusing on scouting out healthy foods while packing eating into ever more hectic schedules. The desire to eat better, combined with food companies pursuing new chances for growth, has created a cycle of influence that is increasingly hyper-charged by the Internet. The result is a cacophony of competing claims and convictions about how we eat that can bewilder consumers as much as it liberates them.” 

The advertisers and TV doctors, reinforced by social media friends who have already bought in, try to scare us into making food choices that make not one iota of difference in the healthiness of the food we are eating and serving to our families.  These labels of gluten-free, all-natural, organic, sea salt, no trans fats, antioxidants, omega-3, non- GMO and all the rest are often meaningless and may appear on products where the only change made was not to the contents but to the label itself – and possibly to the price.

One salad dressing bottle, for example, reads, “Oils like those in [Brand Name] help BETTER ABSORB VITAMINS A & E from salad” – not necessarily the oils that are actually in it, but “oils like those” in it.  The back of the bottle tells how it contains no high fructose corn syrup, but the number one ingredient in the small print below is corn syrup.  The same banner with the no-high-fructose information proclaims it as an excellent source of omega 3 ALA, which comes from the soybean oil.  Soybean oil also contains omega 6 fatty acid, but that’s not mentioned because it hasn’t gotten the hype that omega 3 and gluten-free have.  It’s all about labeling to draw in those who are reacting to popular trends.

The food companies don’t necessarily have to be good nutritionists, they just have to follow the fads and sell us what we are programmed to buy, either by our addictions to junk food, salt and sugar, or by our need, sparked by guilt and a hectic schedule to latch on to the latest fads.  Sometimes they add or change an ingredient; sometimes they merely reprint the label.  Does anyone wonder how our grandparents survived without these kinds of fine-tuned diets?  How does critical thinking play into this cycle of artificially heightened emotional reactions?

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