As a food investor, I am often skeptical of the staying power of emerging trends. Is the trend a fad? Or, is it truly a groundswell that will change long-term eating patterns.
According to Statista, the gluten-free foods market was $2.4 billion in 2015, up 41% from $1.7 billion in 2010. And it is projected to triple—up to $7.6 billion—by 2020.
Explosive growth like that from a food allergy category is eye-opening.
In mid-2015, I wanted to find out if gluten-free was a fad. I read three books and a range of articles on both sides of the wheat and gluten-free debate. What I found really surprised me. Ultimately, I gave up wheat and gluten completely in early 2016.
Since that time, I have lost 15 pounds. I feel more focused and believe that gluten in my diet contributed to an undiagnosed ADHD problem. I get far fewer migraine headaches than I suffered when I was eating wheat.
But, what is most amazing to me is that, during this past year, I have not dieted at all!
In fact, I eat about 100 more calories per day than I did before giving up gluten. I am never hungry, and I still eat sweets once or twice a day.
So what did I learn in my research about wheat and gluten, and what does it say about the long-term trends for gluten-free foods?
First, (and as I suspected) the growth of gluten-free foods has very little to do with the food allergy called Celiac Disease—which requires a person to give up foods containing gluten entirely. While the incidence of Celiac is increasing, it is still quite small at less than 1% of the population (1 in 133), according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
However, there are two other types of people embracing a gluten-free lifestyle:
Those latter two groups are the primary drivers of the growth of gluten-free foods. I believe this category will continue to grow at an above-average rate for many years.
Before I get into some of the particulars about wheat and gluten, this would be a good time for a general disclaimer…
I am neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. While a gluten-free diet helped me, it is not appropriate for everyone. If you are interested in researching a gluten-free diet, I would suggest Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter or Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis You should also consult your physician before making any changes to your diet.
Having said that, I do not believe that humans need wheat or gluten to be healthy. Nutritionists indicate that grains are an important part of a balanced diet, but there are plenty of other gluten-free grains (Quinoa, wild or brown rice, sorghum, buckwheat, oats, etc.) that provide the same—or more—nutritional value as wheat.
So what drove me to give up wheat and gluten? There were three primary factors.
First, wheat primarily breaks down into sugar when digested in your body. Sugar is the primary compound our bodies need to produce energy. Sugar was scarce thousands of years ago, but it is now overly abundant. When we have excess sugar in our bloodstream, we create insulin to take that excess sugar to fat cells for storage and future use.
That was a great survival mechanism when sugar was scarce, and we might starve to death. In essence, we are likely all descended from ancestors with a sweet tooth for fruit and who survived the barren winter months on stored sugar in their fat cells.
Nowadays, we are inundated with sugar in most of the processed foods we eat. All that excess sugar gets converted into fat. Modern people RARELY need to draw on that excess stored sugar.
Instead, we just keep building up more storage as we get fatter and fatter.
Think about eating a typical muffin, doughnut or cinnamon bun for breakfast. Not only are you getting the extra sugar added to the muffin and the sugar in the icing, but the wheat used to bake that product also breaks down into sugar. It is a double, triple or even quadruple spike in blood sugar levels, insulin production and fat storage.
The second issue that led me to eliminate wheat from my diet: the gluten itself.
Gluten is a sticky protein found in wheat, rye and barley. That stickiness makes wheat great for baking—it improves the texture of our bread, muffins and cakes. It also helps pie crusts or croissants hold their shape.
However, gluten’s stickiness may cause inflammation inside our bodies. A growing number of doctors and health professionals believe gluten (and the inflammation) is linked to a number of human maladies. Since I am not a doctor, I will not dive deeper into that topic, but what I read leads me to believe I am better off gluten-free.
I urge you to research for yourself.
The final issue is the addictiveness of gluten based products.
Gluten, like other drugs, stimulates the release of endorphins in our brains. That creates a positive feeling associated with whatever food we eat.
This process generates those maddening cravings we have for certain foods. When you see Oprah Winfrey on a Nutrisystem’s Weight Loss ad proclaiming that “she loves bread,” that is the endorphins talking!
The good news is those cravings go away quickly after you take away the gluten. After my first gluten-free week, I did not crave any of my old favorites: brownies, muffins and chocolate cake.
In fact, after I started seeing the positive results in my mind and body, I actually developed an aversion to gluten based foods. I don’t ever want to be back on that gluten addiction treadmill, and I never plan to eat gluten based foods again!
As I said, a gluten-free diet is not for everyone. But, I am more convinced than ever that the reasons behind the growing trend ARE valid.
That’s why I expect the market for gluten-free foods to continue to grow.
But, more importantly, I write this so that you do not dismiss gluten-free as a fad, like some in the media. I think many, including myself, embrace gluten-free, not as a diet, but rather as a permanent lifestyle.
I am a PE investor focused on the food and agriculture industries. I share insights on the food revolution in an article on Financial Poise. You can subscribe to my column to learn more about the trends in food, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, etc.
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