Head to any restaurant downtown and you’ll find the same thing on every menu, regardless of cuisine. From Iron Horse to Ciao Mambo, the top restaurants in Missoula are quickly jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.
It’s a savvy business move. According to CBS News, nearly two million Americans have celiac disease, the disease that leaves people with unpleasant reactions to wheat, barley and rye, a number that’s quadrupled in the past 50 years.
But while CBS News reports that celiac disease itself may be on the rise, it’s far from the sole factor behind the boom in gluten-free diets.
Food writer Michael Pollan told Huffington Post that much of the anti-gluten movement springs from word-of-mouth rather than medicine.
“Gluten, I think it’s a bit of a social contagion. I think that the number of people that are genuinely gluten-sensitive cannot be growing as fast as the market niche is growing,” Pollan said. “There are a lot of people that hear from their friends, ‘I got off gluten and I sleep better, the sex is better, and I’m happier,’ and then they try it and they feel better, too. The power of suggestion.”
Research conducted by the Mayo Clinic seems to back up Pollan’s point. While 1.8 million Americans may actually suffer from celiac disease, 1.4 million may not even know they have it. Even more damning? 1.6 million are on a gluten-free diet without ever being diagnosed.
Part of these 1.6 million may think they suffer from “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” a condition discovered by Peter Gibson, a gastroenterology professor at Monash University in Australia, in 2011. But a more recent study by Gibson actually discounted his previous findings, saying no such condition exists, according to Huffington Post.
The trend is more likely a product of new diet fads and best-selling books like “Wheat Belly,” by Wisconsin cardiologist William Davis.
“Wheat is the most destructive thing you can put on your plate, no question,” Davis told NPR in 2013.
Millions of Americans are buying into Williams’ gluten-free diet and other gluten-free fads like the Paleo diet, and the food production market is making bank off of it.
According to research by Mintel International, the gluten-free food market grew by 44% from 2011 to 2013 alone. The same study found that 1,513 new products were created for the $10.5 billion industry from July 2012 to 2013.
The gluten-free fad has also had a boost from celebrity endorsements, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus, both of whom claim to have an “intolerance” according to the BBC.
But without a true celiac diagnosis, the gluten-free diet mainly seems to only help the ego, or as Alan Levinovitz author of “The Gluten Lie,” said:
“The loudest evangelists are the ones for whom it genuinely works.”