According to market research organization Packaged Facts, the market for gluten-free foods has grown much faster than expected, at a compound annual growth rate of 30% from 2006 to 2010.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder with symptoms triggered by gluten consumption, the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and spelt – but although awareness of the condition has increased rapidly in recent years, most people consuming gluten-free diets do so for other reasons.
Dr. Gaesser claims that there is no evidence that gluten-free diets are effective for weight loss, and may even lead to weight gain if dieters switch out gluten-containing foods for gluten-free equivalents that may have extra sugar or saturated fat added to improve palatability.
“While the gluten-free diet is an important medical treatment for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, far too many Americans are following the diet for reasons that simply do not make sense," Dr. Gaesser said, following a review of the scientific literature regarding gluten-free diets in the general population, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to a Packaged Facts survey carried out in fall 2010, only 8 to 12% of gluten-free consumers said they bought gluten-free products because they or a member of their household has celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten, wheat, or other ingredients.
It found that the top reason (46%) for buying gluten free foods and beverages was a perception that they are ‘generally healthier’, while 30% of gluten-free consumers said they did so in an effort to manage their weight.
The idea of adopting a gluten-free diet for weight loss has been boosted by celebrity endorsements in recent months. Back in April, actress and singer Miley Cyrus said that she suffered from gluten and lactose intolerance, and urged her more than five million Twitter followers to embrace a gluten-free diet.
“Everyone should try no gluten for a week! The change in your skin, [physical] and mental health is amazing! U won't go back!" she tweeted.
Dr. Gaesser said: "Even though it has been endorsed by celebrities for weight loss, let's face it - they are not the experts on nutrition and health. It's time to listen to the science.”
He added that this disconnect illustrates the need for stronger efforts to educate the public about reasons for avoiding gluten.
Celiac disease is estimated to affect about one in every 133 Americans. The only treatment currently available is complete gluten avoidance.