Everyone has something to say about the gluten free diet. It’s a fad. It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. It’s expensive. It might make you lose weight, possibly gain it, and it’s guaranteed to make you annoying.
But here’s the one thing that really matters: now that everyone and Gwyneth Paltrow have jumped on the gluten free bandwagon, there are a lot more food options out there that are safe for gluten sensitive people and celiacs like me. Fifteen years ago, my mom had to mail order me loaves of cardboard dressed up as gluten free bread. This week, I ate a gluten free cinnamon bun for breakfast — and bandwagon jumpers, I loved you for it. Even you, Gwyneth.
Like Slate's Laura Bennett, I was gluten free before it was a thing — which has been scientifically dated back to April 8, 2012, when Miley Cyrus tweeted that "Gluten is crapppp [sic] anyway!" I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease after dealing with a long list of exciting gastrointestinal issues for years, which had already made me a pretty cool kid. Those issues stopped when I cut out gluten — an easy fix, especially compared to other chronic conditions out there. But food is inherently social, and not being able to share meals or trade sandwiches at lunchtime starting in middle school was isolating.
Celiacs have to be so careful because for us, gluten — a protein in wheat, rye, and barley — triggers an autoimmune reaction that tears up our guts. Whenever I accidentally eat it, my immune system gangs up on my small intestine and flattens the little fingers in the intestinal wall called villi that absorb nutrients from food. Long term inflammation like that that can lead to nutrient deficiencies and even, sometimes, cancer. Short term it can send me running to the bathroom.
At least one percent of Americans have celiac disease, which adds up to about 3 million people. Still more may have something called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which basically means that some people feel terrible when they eat gluten, but doctors don’t really know why, how to test for it, or how many people actually have it. Others are just plain allergic to wheat. True allergies are caused by a different immune mechanism than celiac disease, but have a similar treatment: don’t eat wheat.
When it was just us out there, the people who cut out gluten for medical reasons stayed under the radar. Most restaurants — let alone talk show hosts — had never heard of gluten. Once, when I asked if something on a restaurant’s menu was gluten free, the server looked confused and told me, "No, you have to pay for it."
It wasn’t until 2013 that the Food and Drug Administration even started regulating the levels of gluten allowed in a product if the manufacturer wanted to label it ‘gluten free.’
These days, the food industry knows what gluten is because foods without it are money makers. In 2015, around $11.6 billion dollars of gluten free foodstuffs were sold in the US and the label "gluten-free" shows up on around 10 percent of restaurant menus, according to the market research company Mintel. Now, whenever I ask about gluten, I may get an eyeroll — but at least people have heard of it. I can even order gluten free delivery pizza just like a normal human.
And that’s all because of you, you glorious, generous, and altruistic gluten free fad dieters of America. Thank you for eating drier pastries and crumblier bread for my sake.
Please ignore Bloomberg’s misguided directions to start eating gluten again and listen to McGnaw the Gluten-Free Beaver: Just say no to wheat (and rye and barley). Please, keep spending your money on what may be medically unnecessary but are also increasingly edible gluten free baked goods. Let’s keep that multi-billion dollar industry going strong. Because it’s been 15 years for me now, and I’m still waiting for a chewy gluten-free chocolate chip cookie.