Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. It’s a healthy, natural protein, but people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or a rare skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis can have nasty reactions if they eat gluten. So unless you suffer from one of these conditions, I believe you experience no real benefits from choosing gluten-free products.
Celiac disease is a digestive autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine when gluten-containing foods are eaten. The intestinal damage prohibits the body from absorbing nutrients, especially fat, calcium, iron, and folate. Gluten-intolerant or -sensitive people experience negative reactions to gluten but do not have celiac disease. What often causes confusion is a wheat allergy, which is a body's aversion to wheat, not gluten, so people with wheat allergies may have an adverse reaction to certain gluten-free products.
Because of their many different causes, conditions, and symptoms, diagnosis of gluten-related ailments is extremely difficult, and a lot of misinformation about gluten gets promoted.
When I worked in the prepared foods department at Whole Foods and customers approached seeking gluten-free foods, they often asked if these are better or healthier than foods with gluten. I informed them that going gluten free is not necessary for a healthier lifestyle.
Although foods containing gluten (typically, cakes, biscuits, pastries, pancakes, and muffins) are often associated with weight gain and other dietary diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, these ailments are more related to the overall calorie content, especially through added sugars and unhealthy fats in these products, than to their gluten content.
Thus, whether or not an item contains gluten does not determine how “healthy” it is. Unless you are allergic or intolerant to gluten or wheat, I believe that removing gluten from your diet has no direct effect on your health. A gluten-free cake or biscuit, with no change in its ingredients other than the removal of gluten, will be no healthier than its gluten-containing counterparts. And sometimes, gluten-free products can have higher fat, sugar, and salt contents to improve their flavor or texture. Also, by excluding entire groups of foods like whole grains just to avoid gluten, people can risk lowering their intake of certain essential micro nutrients (that is, vitamins and minerals) (1).
There is no end in sight to the expanding US and global gluten-free markets (2). My concern is that the fad aspect of gluten-free diets will overshadow the 1 in 100 people who have celiac disease – a serious disease that requires gluten avoidance for life. While the sudden popularity of gluten-free products benefits those with genuine dietary requirements and their availability is certainly worth celebrating, one can remain healthy without going gluten-free (3).
1. The Truth about Gluten. WebMd. 2011. http://www.webmd.com/diet/truth-about-gluten
2. Statista, The Statistics Portal. http://www.statista.com/topics/2067/gluten-free-foods-market/
3. The Big Bet on Gluten Free. Stephanie From. New York Times. February 7, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/business/food-industry-wagers-big-on-gluten-free.html?_r=0