The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Marketing the "Gluten-Free" Diet Scam

You've Been Punked By Madison Avenue

Any of you who have ever spent any time on a farm will probably know what a manure spreader is. But I have another example of a manure spreader; anybody who works for an advertising agency. And the latest manure these folks are spreading across the American foodscape is the “gluten-free” scam.

Now, don't get me wrong. For the one percent or so of the population suffering from Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a medical necessity. For everybody else who has jumped on the “gluten-free for health” or “gluten-free for weight loss” bandwagons, you've been punked by Madison Avenue.

In the first place, gluten is not some evil source
of pound-packing calories or some villainous substance that will lead you to an early grave. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rye. A composite of gliadin and glutenin bound together by a starch, its purpose is to provide structure to breads, pasta, and other foods made from these grains. Through kneading and stretching, gluten gives doughs their elasticity and strength. That's it. Period. End of sentence. There are no excessive calories or other dietary dastards lurking in gluten.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive tract, specifically the small intestine, where it interferes with the absorption of nutrients and causes damage to the intestine. A number of gastrointestinal symptoms accompany Celiac disease, which may also manifest as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and a host of other factors. One of the triggers for the disease is gliadin. Once it has passed through the stomach and made its way into the intestinal tract, the partially digested gliadin basically causes an “allergic reaction,” for lack of a better term, causing the disease to flare up, resulting in unpleasant, painful, and often dangerous gastrointestinal effects. For everybody else – roughly ninety-nine percent of us – gluten is just a common dietary protein.

However, due to the lack of nutrient absorption, one of the
problems Celiac sufferers have to deal with is weight loss. And
wouldn't you know it, some idiot made the connection between this weight loss and the absence of
gluten ingestion and decided to
make a fad diet out of it, a diet immediately embraced by celebrity idiots like Kim Kardashian. And since ad people always know a good thing when they smell it, they have been mercilessly flogging the “gluten-free” horse, sticking “GLUTEN FREE!” labels on anything and everything in the hopes that our nation of overweight, gullible, frightened, hypochondriac sheeple will all run to the fold and gobble up their product. And it's working. It's working so well that sheeple are actually buying “gluten-free” foods that never had gluten in them to begin with! I'm looking at a big “GLUTEN-FREE SNACK!” label on a bag of potato chips. Now, unless the manufacturer has added some form of gluten as a seasoning or an extender, there is no gluten in potato chips. Never was. Potatoes, like nearly all vegetables and fruits, are naturally “gluten-free.” Same for pickles. Yeah.....that's right.......some Madison Avenue manure spreader got the idea of labeling pickles as “gluten-free.” How about the “gluten-free” rice and/or corn cereals crowding the store shelves? Guess what? There's no gluten in rice or corn. I've also seen “gluten-free” candy, fruit snacks, soda and lots of other sugar-laden or artificially sweetened stuff, all labeled so that you can feel good about feeding your kids things that are inherently bad for them.

Americans will spend over seven billion dollars this year on products labeled “gluten-free.” And yet, because the FDA has not yet codified a guideline for such labels, many of them are misleading, being placed on products that actually do contain some gluten, while most of the rest are simply unnecessary affectations. And because these marketing-driven labels enable manufacturers to jack up the prices, the only place you're going to lose weight is in your wallet.

And yet, some people swear by it. They feel SO much better since they went gluten-free! They've lost unimaginable amounts of weight since going gluten-free. These Kardashian-wannabes are driving a growing number of restaurants into the “gluten-free” pool, causing food costs and prices to rise there, too. And I promise you, if there is even one legitimate Celiac sufferer in the small town in which I live, I will eat my gluten-free shoes.

According to Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at the FDA, “Eating gluten-free is not meant to be a diet craze. It’s a medical necessity for those who have Celiac disease. There are no nutritional advantages for a person not sensitive to gluten to be on a gluten-free diet.”

Dr. David L. Katz, of the Yale Prevention Research Center, echoes the opinion of many other medical and dietary professionals when he says, “For everyone else [not afflicted by Celiac disease], going gluten free is at best a fashion statement, and at worst an unnecessary dietary restriction that results in folly. It reflects a tendency to ingest the ever proliferating pop-culture perspectives on diet and health, without first separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, reveals that many of the gluten-free products on the market can actually be unhealthy because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to compensate for the texture and satisfying fluffiness that natural gluten provides. And most of these products lack the fortification of foods containing gluten. Commercial breads have been made with “fortified” wheat flour for decades. The iron and B and D vitamins this process imparts are often lacking in “gluten-free” foods.

Some practitioners have come up with a broad category, which they are labeling “gluten sensitivity,”
to cover people who don't have Celiac disease, but may still have “sensitivity” to gluten. The jury in the medical community is still pretty far out on this issue, and again, even if “gluten sensitivity” proves out, it only expands the field by a few percentage points. And even these practitioners agree that the vast majority of people who “go gluten-free” to lose weight or improve their health are just being scammed.

The dictionary defines “scam” as “a fraudulent business scheme; a swindle.” Other definitions include words like hustle, flimflam, bamboozle, and con game. Scams traditionally exploit common human foibles like vanity, gullibility, irresponsibility, desperation and naïveté. And when celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who practices gluten-free “cleansing,” fall for the scam, it spreads like wildfire.

If someone you know – someone lacking a valid medical need – has begun singing the praises of being “gluten-free,” just shake your head and walk away. Keep in mind the old maxim, "Don't argue with idiots. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a loaf of bread in the oven and a pot of pasta on the stove. And since Kim and Oprah won't be dropping by for dinner, I'll probably have plenty to share. Tutti a tavola e mangiare!

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