The psychology of food

Gluten-free diet - hope or hype?

Walk into the local grocery store and you’re likely to find an array of products with the words “gluten-free” splashed across the label. Everything from cereal to frozen pizza to pasta — and even water — is getting the gluten-free treatment.

According to a recent survey, 30 percent of Americans said they were cutting down or avoiding gluten altogether. And yet, only four percent of the population needs to avoid eating gluten for health reasons. While the general perception is that a gluten-free diet is good for your health, recent research has shown that it may not actually be.

In an effort to understand the gluten-free phenomenon — which is generating more than $15 billion in sales annually — ASU Now spoke with three Arizona State University professors who have studied the diet. They offer their observations on the nutritional value of going gluten-free, the food industry’s reaction to the craze and the psychology behind why so many people have adopted the diet.

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There is no clear evidence that avoiding gluten offers any health benefits for the majority of the population

Carol Johnston

For the 96 percent of the population without celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, going gluten-free amounts to very little, said Carol Johnston, professor and associate director of the Nutrition Program in the College of Health Solutions. “There is no clear evidence that avoiding gluten offers any health benefits for the majority of the population.”

Lauren Chenarides, assistant professor in the Morrison School of Agribusiness in the W.P. Carey School of Business, said the money-making potential of gluten-free products is too great for food suppliers to ignore. “They don’t want to miss out on the market,” which is projected to continue its upward trajectory both in the United States and internationally.

According to Glenn Gaesser, professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, College of Health Solutions, the gluten-free diet’s global rise in popularity is due to influential endorsements, clever marketing and wishful thinking, rather than scientific backing. “It’s the placebo effect,” he said. “If you tell someone that this is the problem and if you get rid of it you’ll feel better, they likely will feel better.”


Source: Arizona State University (ASU)

From left to right: Carol Johnston, Lauren Chenarides, Glenn Gaesser
From left to right: Carol Johnston, Lauren Chenarides, Glenn Gaesser

02.12.2017

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