It seems there’s a new trend in women’s fitness.
Really lairy leggings.
You thought I was going to say ‘gluten free’, didn’t you? That’s what I expected to be saying about my recent trip the Be Fit London show (thanks to some tickets won from old favourites, Perkier Foods), but the fact is that, if my experience was anything to go by, gluten free has gone way beyond a trend for the 20-30 something health-conscious female demographic this show was aimed at. Gluten free is now such an ubiquitous part of health and fitness, I struggled to find any food stalls or samples on offer that were not gluten free!
The show comprised a mixture of (very popular) fitness classes, expert talks from top athletes, 1-1 nutrition consultations and a lot of food stalls. Physically taking centre-stage were Newburn Bakehouse, inviting people to try (dairy free) buttered & jammy slices of their sandwich thins, proudly comparing their lower fat content against stalwarts Genius. Some of my favourite brands including Perkier and Nature’s Path were pleased to talk about the benefits of protein-packed, slow energy release oats as part of your health regime. So far, so good. A multitude of smaller brands and new startups (including delicious new Mindful Bites) also proudly displayed their gluten free credentials. But then there was Nestle, with a gleaming wall of (~30% sugar) gluten free honey flakes, Smooze coconut & fruit ice lollies, and a host of other treats and eats; none of which, even with my rudimentary understanding of nutrition, would I consider ‘health’ foods.
How did ‘gluten free’ (and in many cases ‘dairy free’) come to signify ‘healthy’? It seems that ‘gluten=bad’ has now reached the status of a universally acknowledged truth in popular consciousness.
Of course no one was saying cutting gluten helps with health/fitness/weight loss/sports performance. Much to my gluten-eating husband’s embarrassment I interrogated a few of the stall-holders. ‘There’s obviously a lifestyle market we’re looking to cater for’ Nestle tell me. ‘The benefits of our products is they are forfeited with vitamins whereas many other gluten free products aren’t’. That’s true, but they weren’t to be drawn on whether they felt being gluten free was in any way related to health or fitness for most of their customers. The same was true for Nature’s Path: ‘Some of our products are obviously there as a treat’ they say.
They’re not saying it, but their presence at this kind of event definitely implies it. Especially when the gluten free bread stand is plonked firmly under a show banner proclaiming ‘YOUR BEACH BODY STARTS HERE’ (eat your heart out, Protein World). All this passive ‘oh we’re just giving the people what they want’ is a bit hogwash. You create your market. It’s one thing to have a sports or health product that is naturally gluten free which maximizes its appeal to people with a genuine gluten issue, or to find a pleasant sales uplift in your coeliac-targeted products from the gluten free ‘halo’; but it’s quite another to conceive and launch a product because it is gluten free then target it directly at unsuspecting health enthusiasts because they have been led to believe that gluten is somehow holding them back.
I’m finding hard to articulate why I have a problem with this. I often find myself in the strange position of defending the poor little protein that causes my coeliac gut so much turmoil.
On a personal level, the ubiquity of gluten free in the fitness world is fantastic- more choice for me as a coeliac. Perhaps I’m also a bit precious. I found myself defensively asking ‘are they suitable for coeliacs?‘ (with emphasis on the c-word) rather than the usual ‘are they gluten free?’ to show that I’m special and have a ‘real’ problem (just as well as even post-labeling legislation ‘gluten free’ still does not always mean <20ppm), but thinking about it, who am I to belittle a whole host of people who are genuinely looking for the best way to look, feel and be healthier?
Judging from the block-booked sessions with nutritionists and dietitians, there is a real hunger for people to understand what they should be doing for the best with their nutrition. There is either an absence of clear evidence-based information from public health professionals, or confusion, or mistrust in what there is, that is leading people to leap on the half-truths and pseudo-science spouted by nutritionistas, alternative practitioners and unqualified celebrities about the ‘inflammatory’ properties of gluten or whatever the myth du jour is.
So it’s perhaps not fair to heap my ire on the gluten free manufacturers. At the end of the day in business your only purpose is to generate profit; and in absence of any public health messages about the safety and health-giving properties of gluten-containing grains, what can be done?
Whoever’s at fault, my feeling is the horse has bolted – the demon gluten is now firmly entrenched in the popular imagination, and unless there’s a pretty revolutionary campaign, or some kind of public health crisis, of I can’t see it going anywhere for a while.
Alex Gazzola has written much more eloquently about marketers making the link between gluten-free and sports performance here.
This new book comparing gluten free with religion is also rather fascinating.