Written by Linsy Hunsaker

Gluten-free is everywhere, including restaurants, grocery stores, and now even Girl Scout cookies. But are the health benefits of this craze just a giant placebo effect? Or is there more to it than that?

Gluten is a protein found in grains; it gives us the texture we love in our baked goods. And for some people, it can cause serious medical issues.

Celiac disease, a reaction to gluten in which the body attacks the small intestine and makes it difficult to absorb nutrients, is a real condition. That being said, it’s not all that common; only an estimated one-percent of our population have the disease.

So does this mean that everyone else buying up the ever-growing number of gluten-free products is crazy? Not necessarily.

A 2012 Italian study found that about one-third of it’s participants touting gluten intolerance were indeed sensitive to gluten. An estimated 6% of Americans have difficulty digesting gluten as well. Gluten intolerance can be very uncomfortable, causing everything from stomach pains to pounding headaches. Again, a real condition.

But wait, what about the others in the study who thought they were gluten intolerant? Exactly. Two-thirds of the participants claiming to be sensitive to gluten really weren’t. This finding brings into perspective the growing number of Americans going gluten-free.

An estimated one third of Americans are trying to cut back on gluten, but less than ten percent of Americans actually have gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
Market researcher Harry Balzer estimates that almost a third of Americans are trying to cut back on gluten. This is a big jump from the less than 10% that have gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

So does this mean that almost a fifth of our population are operating under some sort of placebo effect? Again, not necessarily.

There are benefits to cutting out gluten that have nothing to do with allergies or intolerances. When someone goes “gluten-free,” they unwittingly cut out a lot of processed foods; that would make anyone feel better.

And the food industry is pushing the trend along. Gluten-free snacks increased 163% from 2012-14, reaching sales of $2.8 billion, according to research from Mintel.

Sources: The New York Times, Slate, WebMD, Celiac Central, US News, and Women’s Health
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