Food for ThoughtAug/Sep 2012 Issue

Gluten-Free Tsunami

Thoughts on food as fad


Every day, someone tells me they’ve sworn off gluten, most for reasons that have nothing to do with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or even mild sensitivity.

“I’m trying to lose weight,” says the punked-out drummer down the block. “Humans were not designed to digest gluten,” the hostess of a ritzy dinner party tells me, showing off her pricey Le Veneziane pasta fagioli and winking.

I’ve noticed this irks some in the celiac community and strikes fear into those who have worked long and unflaggingly for awareness of celiac as a bona fide disease, those selfless souls who brought us to this tipping point. Today we know celiac disease and its many variations are far more common than we ever thought, but who ever imagined a day when millions would follow this restrictive diet whether they needed to or not, when movie stars would tell us eschewing gluten was one of their secrets to a sexy body?

Should we treat with suspicion the new lassez-faire attitudes engendered by these faddists? Yes.

Do we have to double-check the safety of the meals served by well-meaning, but possibly undereducated, newcomers? Absolutely.

Should we take with a grain of salt the health claims of this growing group? You bet.

But isn’t this what we pined for back in the bad, old days when our bread tasted like drywall compound and mail order was the only way to put dinner on the table? Didn’t we dream of gluten-free pizza parlors on every corner, dedicated bread bakeries that scent the air with yeasty aromas, brownies and cupcakes and birthday cakes and fresh pasta whenever we want them, restaurant waiters who need no explanation, only the words gluten-free to serve us safely and royally?

Notoriety never comes without its challenges but, on balance, it beats the blank stares and empty plates many of us lived with in the hungry years.

Foods, like health conditions, all have their moments—remember Swedish meatballs, chicken fricassee, the year everyone in America was hypoglycemic? I, for one, am not worried about overexposure, the sanctity of my particular plumbing as an important issue or that celiacs as a group won’t be taken seriously. I am thrilled that we’ve achieved what marketers call critical mass, a veritable tsunami of popularity and awareness propelling the purveyors of all things gluten-free toward excellence or oblivion, leaving no room on the table for mediocrity. The eat-or-be-eaten survival of the market fittest.

It’s likely the Rastafarian macrobiotic on my street will fall off the gluten-free wagon and jump on some other food fad. Likewise, the frenzied creation of gluten-free cookbooks and empires will abate.

But when the wave finally breaks, we’ll be left with the best of these enterprises, a world that takes gluten-free in its stride, equal to low fat, lactose free and organic as valid options. Who knows, the hunt for the magic bullet—when we just want the real thing—may be beside the point because the alternative is the real thing. In the future of gluten-free abundance, I imagine being offered a slice of gluten-free pizza and saying, “No thanks, I’m on a diet!”

Novelist and poet Jax Peters Lowell, author of The Gluten-Free Bible and other books, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1981. She lives in Philadelphia.

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