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The Bleak Future Of Gluten-Free Food

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Eating a gluten-free diet doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eating a healthy diet. In the gathering push by big food companies to sell gluten-free junk foods, you may find that trying to select a nutritious gluten-free diet becomes a treacherous task.

Growing Market

The growing market for gluten-free foods has the big food companies drooling over the profitable possibilities of exploiting this demand. But once they get their gluten-free production up to speed, they’ll be spewing out gluten-free junk food so fast it’ll make your head spin, your waistline grow and your health deteriorate if you start consuming their products.

You may have noticed that many people who eat a gluten-free diet focus on finding foods to substitute for items that contain gluten. We’re so hooked on cookies, cakes, doughnuts and breads that we can’t conceive of going through a day that omits a gooey, sweet confection.

That’s why the Web is filled with stories about bakers who formulate gluten-free desserts that are supposed to comfort the gluten-intolerant. But I don’t find much comfort in that. Yes, if your body can’t handle gluten, your choice of foods is more limited. But stuffing yourself with sugary, processed gluten-free cake won’t help your health.

What’s truly frightening, though, is the prospect of the food manufacturing heavy hitters dominating the gluten-free scene and convincing the public that just because something is gluten-free it’s got to be better for you. Processed food is processed food. It doesn’t do a body good.

Extra Production

Of course, the trashing of the gluten-free marketplace has already started as the big food companies start ramping up their production lines.

And it was inevitable that this kind of market would draw them in. Sales of gluten-free crisps, pretzels and snacks have grown from $225 million in 2009 to $388 million in 2011, according to bakeryandsnacks.com. At the same time, the market for gluten-free bread and snacks grew from $46 million to $119 million, with no end in sight for market expansion.

The big food guys recognize that about 30 million Americans have a problem with gluten. On the bright side of these developments, their marketing folks are going to get the message out about gluten, educating more people about the health problems that can be linked to these problematic proteins. On the dark side, Big Food is going to be pushing high-profit gluten-free snack foods that are lacking the fiber and nutrition that people need.

Snack Fans Of The World

All of that makes me wonder about the attitude Big Food takes toward its customers. Do these companies consider consumers to be health-conscious eaters? Or do they view supermarket shoppers as slaves to their taste buds who can be manipulated into buying just about any nutritionally worthless product as long as it is marketed, formulated and packaged enticingly enough?

Take a look at how Frito-Lay, the potato chip empire, talks to consumers. On its websites and in its videos it addresses and describes consumers as “fans” of its snack foods. The word “fan,” of course, is short for fanatic.

A Frito-Lay video aimed at consumers that describes how the company responds to feedback from its fans describes mostly what it takes out of its food to try to make it less harmful to health. (It limits sodium and trans fats.)

Strange Brew

In its effort to reach out to gluten-free fans, Frito-Lay also has started posting gluten-free recipes on its websites. But if its recipe for Chocolate Potato Chip Cookies is any indication, cooking with Frito-Lay snack foods is not conducive to high-quality dining. The cookies contain coffee, chocolate chips, potato chips and guar gum.

I’m sure that a spokesperson for Frito-Lay would argue that the company is in the snack business and that it doesn’t intend for its foods to be consumed in large amounts. But it’s hard to understand how its products would fit into a healthy diet at all.

The situation with gluten-free food marketing mirrors what’s already wrong with our approach to food. We overeat fast, unhealthy processed food because we’re in too much of a hurry (we think) to prepare proper meals. We get sucked into consuming a diet of sugary drinks and snacks packaged in eye-catching containers that are satisfying in the moment but harmful in the long run.

A case in point is the method one marketing team used to increase sales of gluten-free pizza: “(We used a) package that was ‘Fun’ and highlighted ‘Gluten Free’ as a good thing and a great experience.”

If you think about it, you’ll realize that food marketing has become pretty much the same as the marketing of video games and clothing. We get sold the “fun” in all these consumer goods. We’re identified as fans of food, not people concerned with health. Pretty soon, the gluten-free lifestyle will be as mainstream as potato chips. Be ready.

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