Over the past few years, the shelves in supermarkets, local shops and food outlets of all kinds have filled up with products advertising themselves as ‘gluten-free’. You can’t miss them, really. They are everywhere. And they are, it seems, responding to a genuine consumer demand.
As many as one in five Irish people are reported to be following a gluten-free diet. But, according to Professor Fergus Shanahan from UCC’s Department of Medicine, who spoke to Sean O’Rourke this morning, many of these are being swayed by celebrity endorsements and are, in effect, wasting millions on gluten-free products which are of no benefit to them.
‘Something in the region of 20% of the population is engaging in this food fad, as I would say it is.’
That was Professor Shanahan’s first, but by no means only, salvo into the field of food pseudoscience, particularly the current penchant for gluten-free dieting, which he unapologetically refers to as a ‘fad’.
But how many people are genuinely affected by gluten-intolerance?
‘That number is well supported by solid science. That number is 1% in general in the Western world, and throughout most of the world. That number has coeliac disease, which is a distinct, scientifically confirmed, gluten-sensitivity condition.’
Fergus Shanahan’s interview comes on the back of recently-released research conducted by Bord Bia, which showed that spending on gluten-free food products has increased by €25 million over the last 12 months.
Is the increase down to an increase in gluten-intolerance? It seems not. In the survey undertaken by Bord Bia, nearly 80% of respondents who said they follow a gluten-free diet conceded that they did so without having been diagnosed as coeliac.
So, why the popularity of eating gluten-free?
For many consumers, a belief persists that a diet without gluten is intrinsically healthier. For others, it’s about celebrity endorsement, much of it vocalised in the form of pseudoscience. But, according to Fergus Shanahan, this is not a new thing.
The neutron diet in the 1990s was, again, bogus science. ‘Not backed up by evidence,’ according to Professor Shanahan.
‘I’m simply saying that this whole area, this whole fad, is not new…. Fads and waves, even though they generate a lot of money, and they may be good for the economy of some people, that doesn’t make them right.’
To listen back to the full interview, click here.
Photo credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
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