For better or worse, NYC goes gluten-free
Nolita, NEW YORK– The gluten-free diet has grown into one of the most popular nutrition trends over the past couple of years. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow have undergone gluten-free cleanses, and even acclaimed health specialists like Dr. Oz are endorsing the alleged health benefits of forgoing gluten. Many restaurants in NYC and elsewhere now offer separate menus to meet the increasing demand for gluten-free products—but what has warranted such demand? Is gluten unhealthy or is this another fad diet?
Gluten is an amino acid found in cereal grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Amino acids aid the body in breaking down food, repairing tissue and performing many other bodily functions. For certain people, however, this nutrient can be toxic.
While cases of gluten intolerance are not noticeably increasing, diagnoses are as doctors have learned how to better detect symptoms within the past decade.
After visiting a doctor about an irregular rash and consistent headaches, King’s student Jonathan Burch ('15) was diagnosed with the most common form of gluten-intolerance, celiac disease. Burch explained that while medication is available to counter the effects, there is currently no known cure.
More serious signs of gluten-intolerance include destruction of the digestive system, cancer and infertility.
An article published by CNN last year entitled “Will a gluten-free diet improve your health?” said that, while only about one percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease, experts claim as much as 10 percent have a related condition called non-celiac gluten intolerance (NCGI), or gluten sensitivity. Like celiac patients, many people with NCGI find relief in a gluten-free diet.
“I never had any reactions to food my entire life until last summer, right before I moved to New York,” Jesse Kruger ('13) said. “I felt full all the time. I could go a day or two without eating, and still feel really full the whole time—like I had eaten a buffet.” Kruger lost 35 pounds in one month, and after seeking help from a California dietician, discovered that he had NCGI.
Kruger and Burch exemplify just two of many puzzling medical scenarios linked to gluten. As the result of their diagnoses, both have been forced to cut out gluten completely from their diets, drastically changing their lifestyles. For example, soy sauce, used to accompany sushi and many other gluten-free Japanese dishes, contains gluten.
“It can be hard to find substitutes for a craving,” Kruger said. “Sometimes I venture and try things to see if I can eat them, and if I get the slightest reaction I know I can’t.”
Burch and Kruger expressed that their conditions have created a financial burden and a social barrier. There are very few things that they can eat that are not self-prepared, so restaurant outings with friends aren’t often practical. Burch gave the example of gluten-free pizza, which runs about $6-$7 a slice, compared to regular pizza which New Yorkers can find for as low as $1.
Rice to Riches, a restaurant in Nolita, offers a variety of gluten-free rice pudding. Anna Seddon, the store manager, explained that the company’s goal was not to accommodate the rising gluten-free demands.
“It’s great that people [with gluten intolerance] can come more often, but we didn’t do it on purpose,” Seddon said.
Unlike many gluten-free companies, Rice to Riches does not advertise as being “healthy." On the contrary, the shop itself is adorned with posters displaying phrases such as “Eating three sensible, balanced meals a day will only spoil your appetite for rice pudding.”
Rice to Riches customer and patient of the Celiac Studies Program at Columbia University, Jennifer Nappi, described a problem with the growing gluten-free fad diet.
“A person who has celiac disease and can’t eat gluten is like a diabetic who can’t eat too much sugar,” Nappi said. She pointed out that many gluten-free foods (like rice pudding) are not healthy, as extra fat and sugar must be added to compensate for loss of flavor and texture.
Nappi’s friend and fellow Rice to Riches diner, James Sloan added that gluten-free diets are a “big thing” now. He theorizes that American bodies are becoming less tolerant due to constant consumption of refined, processed food. Sloan, who is not gluten-intolerant, has taken to eating fewer processed foods and cooking for himself.
“Even Oreos today taste more artificial than they did in the eighties,” Sloan said. “There is just something about eating natural, homemade food that makes your body feel better.”