I have been asked this question almost every single day for the past few years, and I’m willing to bet that as a foodservice professional you have pondered it too.
To better understand the trend, I like to categorize gluten-free consumers into three groups.
The gluten-free diet is medically necessary for people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or simply gluten sensitivity) and wheat allergy. People with celiac disease are advised to avoid gluten 100 percent over the course of their lifetime, as eating even the smallest amounts can cause an immune response and damage to body systems, which, for some, can lead to long-term health issues. We know very little about non-celiac gluten sensitivity at this point, including if eating small amounts of gluten is damaging to the body. As a result, it is generally recommended that people with gluten sensitivity err on the side of caution and completely avoid gluten until we know more. Those with a severe wheat allergy often choose to strictly avoid all sources of gluten so as to reduce their risk of coming into contact with wheat.
Other Health Conditions
Some people with certain conditions—such as autism or autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis—experience symptomatic relief on a gluten-free diet. However, the medical literature doesn’t support the gluten-free diet as being effective for all people with these conditions, and that is my experience as a practitioner as well. For these conditions, the gluten-free diet is not considered medically necessary, but it can be beneficial for some.
Celebrities and professional athletes touting the gluten-free diet as the cause for their weight loss, improved athletic performance or just being healthier has been the biggest contributor to the gluten-free diet craze. At this point in time, though, there is no scientific evidence to show that removing gluten from the diet, in and of itself, is a healthier way to live or is the cause for weight loss or improved performance in the general population.
My guess is that people experience these benefits for one of two reasons: 1) they have a true sensitivity and may not know it or 2) in their efforts to remove “gluten” from the diet they are replacing many low-nutrient foods (i.e., cookies, cakes, refined breads and cereals) with whole, nutrient-rich foods. In the second scenario, it is not the removal of gluten that is at the root of improved health/performance but rather eating a healthier diet overall.
The bottom line is that millions need to eat gluten-free for maintaining their long-term health, but there is no proof at this point that eating gluten-free is healthier for all.
If you are a foodservice operator asking yourself whether to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, here’s my thought on that: The fad dieters may move onto the next big thing, but the millions eating gluten-free for medical reasons are eating this way for a lifetime. And you know what? They are almost always the one making the decision about where to dine with friends, family and co-workers.