Excuse me, is that snake oil gluten-free?

June 11, 2014

Store worker Sam Issa walks past rows of herbal, vitamin and mineral pill products at a suburban pha..

As consumers, we like to think of ourselves as savvy and rational. But marketers have always known better. The health food and dietary supplement industries, in particular, have long made a mockery of the rational consumer.

They delve into our wounded hearts with evangelical calls to detox and purify. They bend our minds with pseudoscientific drivel and armies of so-called experts who tell us that instead of fresh, nourishing food, we need supplements and specially treated products.

Never mind that mounting evidence suggests the contrary. Our self-control is subverted by clever ads and our rationality crumbles when everything from upscale health stores to 7-Elevens stock pills, powders and products that would make a snake oil salesman blush.

Bottles of spirulina are seen at Labiofam Laboratories in Jaruco outside HavanaWhile we may be alert to crude promises of miraculous results, we’re not so good at sussing out the more insidious distortions and oversimplifications — especially when it comes to something as intimate as our bodies. Human emotions and self-delusion tendencies get in our way.

The stresses of modern life often make us feel out-of-sorts and tired. With so many of these stresses — overwork, tyrannical bosses, screaming toddlers — seemingly outside our individual control, it’s no wonder that we swallow the latest health fad.

Wouldn’t it be easier if our suffering were caused by some particle that we are eating or not eating? If jettisoning gluten was the answer? Or popping a multivitamin? Or eating like a caveman with a Whole Foods next door?

Consumers end up with little real idea of what we’re buying. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently featured a sketch asking health-conscious folks avoiding gluten what gluten actually is. They had no idea.

What we think we know about nutrition is often based on tenuous links and conflicting evidence. One day, egg yolks and butter are health villains. The next they are pardoned. Whole grains are either good for us or turning our brains into mush. Antioxidants are great  — wait, they might accelerate cancer. Omega 3s prevent heart disease and boost brain power, or maybe they don’t.

To this confusion, add a heaping helping of outright lies and untested products. Then a dollop of distrust for medical professionals and academic authority, plus a generous serving of poor regulation and big money politics. Top it off with celebrity pitches and plugs from someone like Dr. Oz.

To match feature HEALTHFOOD-ASIA/What you’ve got is a recipe for a public-health nightmare. Americans have been turning into do-it-yourself biochemists, unable to sort the bogus from the beneficial. Unfortunately, what we don’t know can hurt us. We are spending our money on products that are useless — or worse.

But could the tide be turning? There are signs that consumers may be starting to wise up and push back, forcing companies to listen.

Marketers, for example, have been telling us that we need foods and pills that are “natural” — despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration admits it doesn’t have a clue what that term means.

Companies are finally getting socked with mounting legal challenges and deciding to drop misleading labels. Kellogg, for example, has just settled a class-action lawsuit over its Kashi “All Natural” and “Nothing Artificial” labeling. The company is paying $5 million to settle. It joins a growing list of familiar brands like Tropicana and Pepsico, which have learned that misleading consumers is potentially costly.

Of course, even if something comes from nature, it’s not necessarily good for us. Consider Testofen, an extract of the herb fenugreek manufactured by GNC and touted as “clinically proven” to boost testosterone. Recently, California and Delaware residents have countered these claims with a consumer fraud lawsuit including allegations under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) that published studies have repeatedly shown Testofen has no such effect.

Fish oil is a perfectly natural substance, but for a Beijing man, this didn’t mean that a fish oil pill endorsed by former National Basketball Association star Yao Ming would help him with memory loss and poor eyesight, as manufacturers claimed. The pills didn’t work, and the man decided to sue.

Part of the problem is a serious flaw in our regulatory system. In 1994, Congress, at the strong urging of the supplement industry, passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which allowed things like vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and other products to be sold with exactly zero proof of effectiveness or safety.

The snake oil salesmen saw their opportunity, and corporate giants jumped into the game. The supplement industry alone, which has become a $30 billion behemoth, is fighting tooth and claw to preserve this dangerous system, conning the public with cries of “health freedom” and lining up against anyone, like Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who tries to introduce common sense legislation.

Meanwhile, a company like the supplement direct seller Herbalife, accused by short seller Bill Ackman and others of being a pyramid scheme, lavishes money on politicians from both parties in the hopes of keeping regulators out of its business. (Ackman has been criticized himself for lobbying members of Congress to crack down on Herbalife. But according to a Reuters article, Herbalife spent many times more on its own lobbying efforts in 2013 than Ackman did).

The good news is that despite regulatory failings, consumer activists have been rising to the challenge of food and supplement manufacturers that have been growing bolder with bogus health claims. Web-savvy consumers are finding reliable information about products through ConsumerReports.org, FDA.gov, and the NIH, along with blogs like Sciencebasedmedicine.org, founded and edited by Yale neurologist Steven Novella.

The high profile debunking of the gluten-free fad, for example, by the very doctor who first fingered the protein as a health worry has put TV doctors and celebrity health gurus like Gwyneth Paltrow on notice that science can sometimes triumph over sensationalism.

We’ll never be entirely rational when it comes to our yearning to be healthy, young and thin. But we still don’t have to swallow everything the health hucksters try to sell us.

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Bottles of spirulina are seen at Labiofam Laboratories in Jaruco outside Havana, September 6, 2011. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa
​PHOTO (INSERT 2): A customer walks past organic products in an organic food chain store in Taipei June 30, 2009. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang ​



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Just take your pharmaceuticals and eat your fast food like a good little following consumer. Gluten is a protein that is in wheat and many other grains. I add gluten to my bread dough when I make it to make the bread more chewy. Bread flour is high in gluten and doesn’t need it, but what is mostly available in stores is all purpose flour which has a mid-level of gluten. Cake flour has low gluten which is why the cakes are soft. Gluten is a good source of protein and is often used in fake meat products. Fried gluten can be used in a stir fry like tofu, as a meat substitute. You only need to avoid gluten if you have a specific allergy.

The pharmaceutical companies don’t like the suppliment companies. They both sell you things that may work, may not work, may be benign, or may be harmful to your health, but, they both want your money. The media (think reuters) side with the ones with the largest lobbying budget, which is the pharmaceutical companies.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

It might be worth reminding everyone that people diagnosed with celiac disease, with rigorous testing including biopsy, must eat gluten-free for real reasons not fads.

Posted by details61 | Report as abusive

What we’ve learned about gluten is back in the 50s producers using it as an additive modified it leading to a rise in celiac disease and sensitivity; GMO wheat rye and barley causing the same results.

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

People like to feel special. The notion that they are so special that what has nourished humans since the neolithic might not be good enough for them gives them exactly the warm fuzzy they want.

The idea that clinical trials and the like are less important when evaluating benefits than a cheesy grin and a slick sales pitch, well that just addresses the other oldest human obsession, the conspiracy theory. (see at least some of the other comments…..)

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

I don’t think you know what you are writing about. did you cash the check yet?

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

I’ve recently read an overview article. The guy reviewed 4 popular diets like DASH and calculated you go deficient on at least 6 micronutrients regardless of diet out of a total of about 30 he looked at. Vitamin E was most striking. On the other hand, you can easily get an overload of Folic Acid with fortified food these days. It is a very complex topic and these blanket statements “you don’t need supplements” or all “natural” supplements are good are plain stupid. There is huge evidence that some supplements really work (Turmeric being a good example) and many studies don’t look at interactions, especially vitamin D or vitamin A supplementation without other complementary vitamins. There is a lot of interaction going on. There was recently a non-inferiority clinical study done on a herb that came to result it’s equal to MTX, the gold standard for severe Rheumatoid Arthritis. BTW, FDA regulates that supplements have to be safe. It’s a bit sad but no one is going to invest in robust efficacy studies for most compounds. Still, there is a plethora of data on PubMed, but that’s too hard to read and understand for Joe Sixpack.

Posted by DorianGray | Report as abusive

Just eat balanced meals, the four basic food groups. People have been eating that for years. Forget all this hooey of don’t eat this, eat that crap.

Posted by Reality2Day | Report as abusive

“Locally Sourced” (employees).

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Well, obviously the advertising revenue is a bit low this month – why not do a paid for article for pharma and fast food lobby. Nice one, Reuters.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Oh goody…Cake has less gluten than bread…peanut butter and cake from now on.

Posted by elderberrynut | Report as abusive

Well the Dr. that did the study in 2013 Dr. Peter Gibson who said Gluten Intolerance is FALSE(I WONDER WHY A STUDY IN 2013 WAS RELEASED NOW?)http://www.gastrojournal.org/articl e/S0016-5085%2813%2900702-6/abstract or Google search this title **No Effects of Gluten in Patients With Self-Reported Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity After Dietary Reduction of Fermentable, Poorly Absorbed, Short-Chain Carbohydrates** By the way this 2013 study to prove Gluten Intolerance is False is funded by a bread company named George Weston foods, so the study sounds Bias especially considering the Dr. who did this study is and saying a LOW FODMAP diet is the cure is as well the one who created the FODMAP diet. You can just Google Search FODMAP Wikipedia or click this link here > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FODMAP However Dr. Gibson has a recent study that links Gluten Intolerance with Depression. Click here > http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term =gibson+gluten+depression or Google search this title **Randomised clinical trial: gluten may cause depression in subjects with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity – an exploratory clinical study.** as well click here > http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content  /2014/s4012012.htm or Google Search this title **Study shows link between gluten intake and depression**

Posted by boyzi44 | Report as abusive

I was shopping at Trader Joes the other day when I noted that their bottled what was advertised as “Gluten Free”. Now, that’s going overboard !!!

And it begs questioning of trust of that merchant. If Trader Joe would hype water as they do, can one trust anything which they “sell”?? What lengths would Joe go to in order to part customers of their cash. What real risks might they ignore for the sale.?

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Like all of anything medical related it goes to trial and error. Find what works for you and discard what does not. I can consume gluten and be just fine. My wife has a hell of time with gluten. That’s just the way it is. We found it all out by…..yes, trial and error. What we need are food producers that label their products honestly so that our trial and error processes can take place in an honest and open manner. We, then, decide for ourselves based on……results!

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

When will science acknowledge that a small percentage of the population are gluten intolerant (or intolerant of something closely associated with the gluten protein) and correctly diagnose the condition.

I have suffered several minor health conditions my entire life. The worst was chronic flatulence. I won’t bore the reader with the details. I do not suffer the more severe symptoms associated with celiacs. About 6 years ago my wife suggested I might be gluten intolerant and we adopted a gluten free diet. I am mostly gas free and the other conditions are gone.

Additionally, a gluten free diet makes it easy to avoid the empty calories associated with bagels, muffins, donuts, hamburgers and pizza slices that are offered at every office and work site.

Posted by greenleaf360 | Report as abusive

Lynn, obviously you don’t know anyone who has sever reactions to gluten or you wouldn’t write this article. I know know several and have seen the horrible illness they go through if they happen to eat something with gluten.

Not that everyone must follow suit, but for years many people suffer when doctors and the medical profession refuse to look at diet. All too often the pharma industry comes up with a “life style” pill which has costs $millions to produce, market and advertise when a change in life style would probably do the same.

I agree the supplements should not advertise non-existing affects, however don’t debunk the whole area for a few errants.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

My doctors (a gastroenterologist, an allergist and a PCP) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have told me that I clearly have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). A gluten free diet readily controls my symptoms.

As far as this being a problem with sugars, as suggested by Peter Gibson and his new study, I can eat any of the forbidden foods on his FODMAP diet. They don’t bother me in the least.

But wheat, rye and barley make me ill within minutes.

This flies directly in the face of his reasoning. I shouldn’t be able to eat those sugars and I should be able to eat wheat, rye and barley. I’m exactly opposite from what he proposes.

I kept a food diary of everything I ate for six months before we came to the conclusion that wheat, rye and barley were the culprit. We didn’t rush into this. We have multiple data points of foods that make me ill in minutes.

For example, simple things like a slice of rye bread, a bowl or regular rice krispies or a sandwich made with Panera Bread’s nine-grain bread (that’s 9 different types of wheat) triggers my illness.

The 9 grain caused me to pass out after getting a “pins and needless” feeling in my arms, legs and scalp about 20 minutes after eating the bread.

How much simpler can this be?

Whatever I have, it’s clear that wheat, rye and barley are to blame. I can eat ANYTHING else that I care to.

I’m going to stick with my doctor’s recommendations and stay gluten free. I like being healthy again.

I think Peter Gibson studied people who have IBS, not people like me who have NCGS.

Posted by TerryJWood | Report as abusive