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Gluten: The Marketing Versus The Science

Evening Edition

Above: Lately, gluten-free foods have been claiming more and more space on grocery store shelves. Sales of gluten-free products may have even topped ten billion dollars last year. But KPBS science reporter David Wagner says the commercial take on gluten doesn't always square with science.

Aired 2/27/14 on KPBS News.

Gluten-free foods have been claiming more and more space on grocery store shelves lately. But the commercial take on gluten doesn't always square with science.

Each time Roxie Johnson goes grocery shopping at her local Whole Foods, she spots new gluten-free products, which makes sense: sales of gluten-free products may have topped $10 billion last year, and food companies all want a piece of the flourless pie. But as consumers like Johnson are finding out, the commercial take on gluten doesn't always square with science.

Johnson was diagnosed with celiac disease back when hardly any companies made gluten-free anything. "Sixteen years ago, there was nothing," she remembered. "Nobody knew anything about it. And these last two years, it's just exploded." 

Johnson said today, she can choose from rows of gluten-free cereals, breads and flour substitutes. And that's great, because people with celiac need to avoid gluten, the protein found in wheat and some other grains. Even small amounts can damage their digestive systems. 

Roxie Johnson appreciates all the gluten-free options now for sale at her local grocery store, especially in aisles she once had to avoid.

"You want to be on the safe side as much as possible," Johnson said.

But Johnson has also started seeing a lot of questionable products. Foods that have always been gluten-free are suddenly scrambling to advertise that fact. Even products that no sane person would eat are now labeled gluten-free. Like the shampoo prominently displayed near the registers at the La Jolla Whole Foods.

"The gluten doesn't go through your skin and into your system," Johnson explained. "You have to eat it. So unless you plan on eating that shampoo, it doesn't matter. You can use any shampoo."

Whole Foods stocks everything from gluten-free orange juice to gluten-free salsa. There's even gluten-free glass cleaner. Johnson said, "That's just going to confuse people rather than help the issue."  

Gluten-free vodka?

Liquor companies are also riding the gluten-free wave. At Kill Devil Spirit Company in Spring Valley, the stills were churning as Ray Digilio showed me around. He described one of his micro-distillery's products. It's a vodka, but Digilio said it isn't like Grey Goose or Absolut. His vodka is local, unfiltered, distilled in small batches. He also makes sure people know it's gluten-free

Ray Digilio's San Diego-based microdistillery also makes moonshine.

"The gluten-free thing was a choice that we made internally to say, let's be conscious of this trend and these people who may have this problem," Digilio said.

Digilio didn't reinvent vodka to get rid of gluten. But he sees gluten-free marketing as a way to to reassure certain customers about what's in his product.

"Arguably all vodkas could be gluten-free," Digilio acknowledged. "But it's just better to make sure you don't have anything in there."

Labeling 'Overkill'

Dr. Sheila Crowe of the UC San Diego School of Medicine said, "When it's that degree of alcohol, gluten is insoluble." She treats celiac patients and people with other types of gluten sensitivity. Some labeling is welcome, she says. But she thinks some gluten-free marketing has become "overkill."

For most of us, Crowe says there's no clear scientific reason to abstain from gluten. For the 1 percent of Americans suffering from celiac, the science is clear. Gluten is the culprit and needs to be cut out. But even for those with gluten sensitivity, researchers still aren't sure gluten is actually what's causing their headaches, upset stomachs and other symptoms.

Dr. Sheila Crowe advises her patients not to drink shampoo, gluten-free or otherwise.

"The science behind non-celiac gluten sensitivity is limited at the present time," Crowe said. "In some instances, it's not probably the gluten, it's the wheat starch that's causing the symptoms. In other people, it may be nothing to do with the wheat. They may have other problems. Some of them have lactose intolerance."

Crowe thinks sometimes gluten is unfairly singled out. She remembers Thanksgiving, when she and her husband encountered a gluten-free turkey. "It struck us as very funny that you would advertise a turkey—a piece of meat—as being gluten-free."

Crowe eats gluten. Quite regularly, she admits. But she knows wherever it's coming from, she's not getting her gluten from glass cleaner. 

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | February 27, 2014 at 9:22 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Ah, yes, gotta love that free market!

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | February 27, 2014 at 10:45 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Mission - I do love the free market. If someone is an idiot and cannot think for themselves, they deserve to get duped. If someone is not smart enough to realize they don't need gluten free shampoo, that is their problem. A fool and his money are soon parted. People need to be responsible for their own decisions, they should not rely on the government to tell them what is healthy or not.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | February 27, 2014 at 1:38 p.m. ― 5 months ago

Jean, not all people can be experts on all things.

It simply isn't possible.

I'm sure there are things you know a great deal about and other things not so much.

This is why we need regulations to keep people who profit off of misinformation honest.

It's not always that someone is "stupid", a lot of times it's simply that you don't have time to research in-depth every single thing in your life and sometimes you do rely on labels or what advertising is saying.

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Avatar for user 'KitINstLOUIS'

KitINstLOUIS | February 27, 2014 at 1:59 p.m. ― 5 months ago

Distilled vodka is always gluten free already, but celiacs can't drink any flavored vodka because manufacturers such as Skyy, Absolute and Smirnoff will neither disclose ingredients (flavorings can change based on supply options and they are no required by the FDA or the ATF to disclose ingredients) nor guarantee that those flavorings are gluten-free.

Also, in the past, certain brands of turkey, and even sweetened ham were injected with a wheat-based broth and were not gluten free. So it is very reassuring for celiac disease patients like me when the label states "gluten-free." For instance, I was mistakenly given the wrong bulk bacon at a store last week that contained barley malt flavoring. Barley is one of the three grains including wheat and rye that are considered "gluten grains." Yes, all grains have their own gluten, but corn and rice, et al, have a different, more innocuous type that doesn't necessarily affect celiacs and people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

As far as gluten-free hair and body products go, it is true that gluten needs to be ingested in order to provoke a celiac reaction, but we're really not sure about the 13% of the population who identify themselves as gluten-sensitive. Because their condition is one caused by a disorder of the innate immune system instead of the autoimmune system, we aren't quite sure what the extent of the etiology and process involved. In addition, many people on a gluten free diet may have allergies instead of strictly digestive-based intolerances and will be glad not to be in skin contact with gluten-free shampoo.

Please be sensitive to the needs of people with NCGS; they are trying to manage extremely disruptive symptoms without much medical guidance. There are no blood markers for their condition; medical science is trying to catch up to them, but they are still far behind. It's not the fault of the patient that there is nothing but trial and error to guide them. In the past few years, they've been called trend-dieters, hypochondriacs and attention seekers. Even though studies published by Dr. Alessio Fasano should have put this talk to rest, the ignorance is still being perpetuated.

http://www.pharmacypracticenews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=Clinical&d_id=50&i=February+2014&i_id=1035&a_id=25997

Our environments have been altered considerably in the past 100 years. It shouldn't surprise anyone that our physiology has responded in unpredicted ways. To do nothing to support patients except dole out anti-depressants when they come in sick and in need should be considered a crime.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | February 27, 2014 at 2:30 p.m. ― 5 months ago

I feel bad for all of these medical professionals who have to treat hypochondria.

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Avatar for user 'CD'

CD | February 28, 2014 at 10:12 a.m. ― 5 months ago

After 20 years of hospitalizations for severe symptoms ranging from severe intestinal pain, migraines, vomiting, diarrhea, painful body aches, weight loss, depression, etc. I was finally diagnosed as having Celiac disease in 2008.

Although I do not "eat" shampoo, I do prefer gluten free shampoo for one reason. It can get on your mouth/lips as you are showering and can inadvertently be digested which will cause a terrible gluten reaction in my intestines and all of the other terrible effects that go along with it. Most people with Celiac disease understand this and do avoid shampoos that contain gluten for this reason. I would think that Roxie Johnson would understand that by now.

Also, it is very important for turkey's that are gluten free to be labeled as such because many turkey's are injected with wheat (gluten). On my first Thanksgiving I ate a turkey that was not gluten free and became very ill for several days, including a trip to the ER.

JeanMarc...Celiac disease is a very real autoimmune disease, not hypochondria.

Having said all of this, I have seen many products such as almonds which are clearly gluten free labeled as gluten free and to me that is ridiculous.

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Avatar for user 'amandastock'

amandastock | February 28, 2014 at 1:56 p.m. ― 5 months ago

I agree with the poster above about allergies. I have a wheat allergy, not celiac disease and cannot use shampoo that contains wheat - which a lot of them do! I dont ingest it but it causes a skin rash. The ingredients list on shampoos can be very tricky when reading for wheat since it goes by a lot of different names. In addition, a lot of foods that are naturally wheat free may get dusted with wheat flour to prevent sticking or have it added in some way - marinades, sauces, thickeners. It is very hard to eat out and eating takes a lot of research including called manufacturers, knowing all the botanical names of wheat,etc. I am glad these companies are taking notice of this and making it easier for customers.

I would be interested to know how wheat farmers and related industries are doing these days with the rise in popularity of gluten free products.

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Avatar for user 'Onezero'

Onezero | March 2, 2014 at 7:01 p.m. ― 5 months ago

Oh, the code for conformist sheep who didn't know what gluten was few years ego

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