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The Gluten-Free Craze: Should You Join In?

A look at the gluten-free trend popping up in new restaurants across the Twin Cities


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PHOTO BY TJ TURNER 

It seems like there is a new food fad every few decades: TV dinners, space-age snacks, and the recent cupcake craze that has resulted in an explosion of television shows and bakeries devoted to the cake-for-one dessert. But among all these culinary trends, the popularity of gluten-free (GF) foods has perhaps felt most omnipresent—accommodating a diet taken by many whose celiac disease or wheat allergy makes gluten, a protein found in wheat grains, damaging to their small intestine.

There’s GF everything now: bread, pizza, cookies, pasta, donuts, bagels, even much-loved cupcakes. The GF industry made $3.5 billion in global sales in 2016 alone, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine.

A quick search of GF options in the Twin Cities makes it clear it’s highly accessible here, too. If you walk into a restaurant that opened this year, chances are there will be GF meals or substitutions on the menu. In fact, only one out of the 42 new restaurants that I contacted, Cardigan Donuts, doesn’t have anything GF because, well, it’s a donut shop that specializes in wheat-filled donuts.

Offering GF food is clearly on trend here, but turns out there's a difference between offering GF food and offering celiac-friendly food. Although numerous restaurants offer GF meals, a lot of that food might still have flecks of gluten in it. This means that options for celiac-friendly meals in restaurants appear to be about as many as they were before the trend. Why?      

A 2016 Mayo Clinic study looked into the continued increase of GF options in the U.S. The study explains that, between 2009 and 2010, 5 percent of the people who chose to avoid gluten had celiac disease; 51 percent who avoided gluten had celiac but were undiagnosed; and 44 percent were people without CD.

By 2013–2014, 16 percent of those who ate GF were diagnosed with CD; 12 percent had undiagnosed CD; and 72 percent of those eating GF did not have CD. According to the same study carried out by Mayo, there was no significant change in the prevalence of CD between 2009 and 2014. In other words, eating foods without wheat has become popular among those who are able to eat and digest gluten. This population is, in fact, largely responsible for driving the demand for GF foods.

So, people who don’t have celiac or other gluten-related illnesses are all about eating foods that don’t include gluten. Why? Maria Luci, the communications coordinator at national nonprofit Beyond Celiac, says that there are a few myths that have fueled the movement.

First, there is the myth that cutting gluten from a diet will result in weight loss, an idea that research has already proven false, as reported in studies conducted by Harvard University, the National Library of Medicine, and other credible sources.

This myth, Luci explains, has been indirectly spurred by books such as Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, two best-sellers warning that wheat, carbohydrates, and sugar aggravate a slew of health problems, including ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, and Alzheimer’s.

Luci also points to celebrities going GF for health reasons or to lose weight. Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, Russell Crowe, and Lady Gaga are some of the well-known names who have given up gluten without CD.

Slashing wheat and other gluten-filled foods from a diet is trendy, but one peer-reviewed study published in the British Medical Journal this year suggests it may not be healthy. The study concluded:

“Long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. However, the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk. The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.”

One big health issue related to going GF comes from what you replace the gluten with. Walking through the aisles at the grocery store, it’s not uncommon to see packages with “gluten free” written in huge letters. But in order to make the product still taste good, many GF foods are high in trans-fat, artificial sweeteners, and other inorganic stuff. So, while many go GF in attempts to be healthier and lose weight, their health may worsen because of the foods they’re eating as gluten substitutes.

Despite the studies that show gluten is an important part of most diets, businesses that specialize in GF foods continue to grow and thrive in Minnesota. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

You can eat gluten-free food without substituting anything for it, after all. A gluten-free bakery, for example, sells items that should be eaten in moderation whether they contain gluten or not. You’d be hard-pressed to name anything truly nutritious in a donut, and if replacing wheat-filled donuts with gluten-free donuts puts your health at risk, you should probably reconsider your diet.

Sift, a gluten-free bakery founded in 2013, is one such business caught up in the recent findings. Founder Molly Miller began baking GF foods to manage her Crohn’s symptoms, a digestive disorder that she was diagnosed with as a young teenager. Cooking for herself quickly turned into a business, and she now provides GF baked goods to Peace Coffee, Quixonic Coffee, T-Rex Cookie Café, and other Twin Cities coffee shops and eateries. Miller’s GF treats are so popular that Sift is opening its own store on 45th and Bloomington in Minneapolis.

I asked Miller about the increase in the demand for GF foods and why she thinks that cutting wheat from diets is so popular right now. “People are really starting to make the connection between how what they eat can influence how they feel,” she says, “and removing gluten from a person’s diet is just one way to influence that.”

Miller says that while many of her customers have celiac and other gluten sensitivities, a large portion of her clientele consists of people who choose GF snacks because they seem healthier than something with gluten in it. "I don't claim to be an expert in this area,” she explains. “I just know there are many connections between food and health."

While many experts are saying that going GF is not a great idea for most people, it is important to remember two things: First, experts have changed their minds before. For example, Americans have been told to avoid carbs, eggs, and fat in the past, all things that are now allowed, and even encouraged (in moderation) by experts today.

The second thing to remember is that everyone’s body is different. Just because one doesn’t have CD does not mean that his or her body can process gluten as it should, and some gluten sensitivities may not currently have a label.

So, when your friend says that she isn’t eating gluten anymore, don’t force a cupcake down her throat and tell her that it’s good for her. She could be experiencing real health problems.

That said, here are some tips:

1. Remember that some people are GF because they have to be for their health. If you choose to go GF, don’t advertise your choice and praise the “diet.” For you it might be a choice, but for others it’s a medical necessity.

2. Unless you have celiac or other gluten sensitivities, gluten isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it adds important protein to a diet.

3. Before going GF, talk to a doctor. If you think that you have celiac or a different GI disease, it will be easiest to test and find if you have been eating gluten.

4. If you decide to go GF for any reason, it’s important to realize that there is gluten in a lot of food, not just the obvious breads and pastas. Canned soup, sauces, and fried foods might have gluten in them. Make sure you read labels and ask servers if dishes have gluten in them.

5. Even some beauty products have gluten in them. If you have any questions about whether you should be using these topical products, check Beyond Celiac’s website for a discussion on whether people with gluten sensitivities can/should use these products.

6. Even if a restaurant says that a dish is GF, it’s not a bad idea to tell the server that you can’t have gluten. This helps to ensure there is no cross-contamination when preparing your food.

7. Most importantly, remember that gluten can actually play an important role in most diets.

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Minnesota Monthly's Taste Blog answers your restaurant and dining questions, dishes on latest discoveries, reflects on breaking news, and generally brings the plate to the page with a skilled crew of experts: Learn more about the Taste bloggers.

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