Gluten-Free: Fad or Fact?
Now and again I am asked whether I think the gluten-free diet is a fad or something that’s here to stay. The answer, in my mind, is simple – but it’s the question that is not.
First, the “fad” question obviously stems from the recent and huge surge in the diet’s popularity. It wasn’t that long ago that the only place you could find a solid assortment of gluten-free foods was the SickKids hospital store. Today, not only is it prominent in specialty health food stores, but also in mainstream grocery stores, Walmart and even discount retailers like Food Basics. Heck, even Betty Crocker has a gluten-free cake mix, and chains like Southstreet Burgers have gluten-free buns on the menu!
Of course, the availability of gluten-free foods hasn’t expanded for no reason – it’s grown because our hunger and demand for it has exploded. Not long ago, only those suffering from Celiac disease (about 1% of the population) would ever dream about following this diet – a diet that meant paying exorbitant amounts of money for cardboard-tasting bread, not being able to enjoy a simple birthday cake, and avoiding social dinner outings with friends. Had you have asked any Celiac ten years ago if they thought the gluten-free diet would ever catch on, they would either have laughed out loud or questioned your sanity.
Today though, gluten-free is the fastest growing specialty food segment with an estimated 18% market penetration. The gluten-free market is forecasted to top $6.6 billion in the US[i] this year alone – almost double its $2.6B size in 2010[ii]. After years of lobbying by Celiac advocacy groups, Health Canada even recently enacted new labeling regulations that require manufacturers to clearly disclose in plain language the presence of gluten in foods.
So what has happened? And why have so many of us non-Celiacs chosen to follow this diet? My theory is that three major trends in the past decade have converged in the perfect storm.
First, Naturopathic medicine, Eastern medicine, homeopathy and other holistic health disciplines have been growing immensely in both popularity and acceptance in western culture. According to the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Medicine, “more people than ever before are seeking and benefiting from naturopathic medical care and the number of naturopathic doctors is growing at record rates.”[iii] More often than not, the first thing that a holistic practitioner examines is their patient’s diet. We wouldn’t be surprised to see our car engine fail after pouring sugar into the tank – but for some reason we don’t question why we need to clear our throats after eating cheese. Not until our naturopath points it out at least!
Second is the Internet. Now that we can share each other’s stories, we are questioning symptoms that we once normalized. Questions like, “I’ve been putting up with gas and bloating for years… maybe it’s from something I’m eating?”
And finally, high profile celebrities have been speaking openly and glowingly about how much their health has improved on a gluten-free diet. Did they go gluten-free for legitimate reasons, and are they actually going to stick to it in the long run? Who knows. But their influence, combined with our Naturopaths’ recommendations and growing conversations in social media have undeniably changed the face of the gluten-free world.
So is gluten-free a fad? In my opinion, absolutely no. For Celiacs, it is the only cure for a serious lifelong disease. And for the other 15% of us with non-Celiac intolerance, it’s a liberation from headaches, inflammation, bloating and unknown long-term health issues. I’m more than certain that anyone who has tried to go gluten-free for the heck of it hasn’t lasted long. And the simple fact that the gluten-free market has grown so steadily and rapidly in North America is a sure sign that we’re all in it for the long haul… because our health is worth it.
Victoria Yeh is a Toronto based public speaker, educator, author of Where Do I Start? Your Essential Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free and Sugar-Free Food Allergy Cookbook, and owner of GlutenFreeToronto.com. Nominated as one of Canada’s Best 2012 Natural Health & Wellness Authors and Motivators/Educators, Victoria is dedicated to helping others adapt to their specific dietary needs and achieve their very best health. For more information, or to purchase her book and personal cooking lessons, visit www.GlutenFreeToronto.com.
 Canadian Grocer. Gluten-Free Market Continues to Grow. http://www.canadiangrocer.com/top-stories/gluten-free-market-continues-to-grow-17112. Published October 24, 2012.  Agri-Food Trade Service, Government of Canada. The Specialty Food Market in North America. http://www.ats-sea.agr.gc.ca/info/6116-eng.htm. Published March 2012.  Canadian Association of Naturopathic Medicine. Naturopathic Medicine Today. http://www.cand.ca/index.php?50. Accessed April 16, 2013.