It’s always possible there’s a corporate conspiracy at work, but all of a sudden it seems like everyone is avoiding gluten. And while the wheat industry may be stocking up on tissues, the rest of the food industry has forged ahead. If you look around, you’ll find the marketplace is flooded with thousands of gluten-free goodies — everything from gluten-free breads to gluten-free cake mix to gluten-free salad dressings. Retailers have dedicated entire sections of their stores to “gluten-free zones,” and according to the marketing research firm Packaged Facts, sales of gluten-free products have increased from $210 million in 2001 to just shy of $700 million in 2006. That’s a lot of not-gluten.
But here’s my question: why are we supposed to avoid gluten?
By definition, gluten is just a fancy name for a protein mixture found in wheat. It’s used very broadly in foods because it acts like a thickening agent or glue to help ingredients stick together (like in bread dough). Gluten occurs naturally in all forms of wheat, and can be found in trace elements in other grains like barley and rye due to the grains being processed on the same machines as their gluten-ridden counterparts. In the processed food world especially, gluten is ubiquitous: cereals, soups, ice cream, candy, pasta, pastries… McDonalds even admitted recently that their french fries had gluten in the flavoring.