Companies shouldn’t shove gluten-free food down our throats

Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures
Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

Commercials always annoy me. Even the funny ones get on my nerves, because I may be watching a much better comedy when the commercials show up to interrupt. Sometimes, though, there are ones that have annoying things to say, and these really get under my skin. One that stands out in particular was about Cheerios. I don’t remember what happened in the commercial, but I remember the end message, that General Mills had cut gluten from all varieties of Cheerios.

I was quite mad. Here was one more company ruining a perfectly good product for everyone, all on account of what amounts to a fad diet that people foolishly think is good for them. I was somewhat mistaken, because it turns out Cheerios are naturally gluten-free, and the manufacturer was simply making sure to avoid wheat contaminating the oats in the cereal. But this is not the only food that has become gluten-free, and this is problematic for much of the population. Granted, there are people who, by all means, should avoid gluten and deserve to have a bowl of Cheerios or some typical gluten-containing food without going through a digestive disaster, but everyone else should not have to eat that same diet just because food companies want to cater to this small portion of the population and scare the rest into thinking they should follow suit.

First, it might be worthwhile to explain what exactly gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in various grains, most notably wheat, which helps hold the foods made from these grains together. It is completely natural, unlike artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, or the whole category of GMO foods, both of which are also maligned by the media and by many food manufacturers.

Gluten is only a real issue for people with celiac disease, which is a genetic disorder found in under 1 percent of the population that causes gastrointestinal problems and malnutrition, among other symptoms. People with celiac disease are unable to digest gluten and suffer intestinal damage if they eat it. There are also a few people with severe wheat allergies, which also mandate avoiding gluten as a byproduct of avoiding wheat. Naturally, for these small sections of the population, a gluten-free diet is a must. Anyone else, though, is wasting their time by thinking that gluten is a threat to their health.

For the rest of the population, there is often the mistaken thought that going gluten-free means being healthier. This is true to a degree, but it is not so much about avoiding gluten as it is about simply eating better foods. Since gluten is found in everything from doughnuts to hamburgers in some fashion, when one stops eating these foods, assuming their diet is healthy afterward, they will lose weight because they stopped the intake of unnecessary calories, carbs and fat. It is fallacious, however, to believe that the elimination of gluten is responsible for weight loss; gluten is just there in unhealthy foods, but unlike sodium, saturated fat and carbs, it is by no means the factor that makes the food unhealthy.

It is also wrongly assumed that because a food is gluten-free, it is automatically some kind of magic health food. For example, gluten can be extracted from wheat to create a gluten-free wheat starch, which the FDA allows for use in foods specifically labelled as gluten-free. However, this wheat starch has almost none of the many nutritional benefits of whole wheat or even processed wheats that contain gluten. It does not do any harm, but then again, for the average person, gluten would not have caused harm anyway. In any case, a gluten-free cookie is still a pile of sugar and fat with zero nutritional value, so making all cookies gluten-free gets us nowhere. 

What is particularly infuriating about food companies’ push to eliminate gluten from their foods is the ubiquity of the trend, as many applicable companies try to slap the “GF” label on their product so it can sell. In contrast, there are other kinds of allergens that get comparatively minor efforts at removal by companies. No one threatens to take the peanuts out of my Snickers bar, even though 1 percent or so of the population, a similar count to the number of people with celiac disease, has peanut allergies, and these are more often life-threatening. Similarly, some 65 percent of the world population has some degree of lactose intolerance, but there is a lot more dairy milk at stores when I buy groceries than there is soy, almond or any other fake milk. Thus, corporations are prioritizing the wrong “enemy” in trying to take gluten off the market and replace it.

Going after gluten as if it causes cancer or something similarly fatal is just too overzealous an approach for businesses to be taking when it is a perfectly normal part of food. Go ahead and help people who need to be gluten-free to enjoy what others can, General Mills, but please let me eat gluten. It’s all I ask.

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