People see “gluten-free pizza” in the supermarket and think, well, hey, I like pizza, and here’s a healthier pizza, so why not give it a try. “The key word is pizza,” says Balzer. “Let me try the new version of it. Let me try the new flavored water. It’s just a new version of the old.”
Sheah Rarback, a University of Miami nutritionist, says that, for a small percentage of Americans with a certain autoimmune disorder, gluten can damage intestines and have other “really frightening” consequences. But for most folks, gluten-free “is a bit of a fad right now,” she says.
Glutens are found in wheats, barley and rye. Rarback says some people find they lose weight on gluten-free diets, but that’s because they’re avoiding fattening products like bread and pasta. The word “gluten-free” does not automatically mean lower calorie, or lower fat or lower cholesterol. “In fact, some gluten-free products are more calories.”
But America’s food industry certainly knows how to jump on a band wagon. The Winn-Dixie grocery chain recently sent me an email listing all the gluten-free foods it offers, including 30 types of cheese. Since gluten is not generally found in dairy products, the real news would be if the chain sold a cheese that somehow contained gluten.
The food that’s fastest growing in popularity, percentagewise, is hummus, the ancient Arab staple that blends chickpeas and spices. “But it’s leading only because it started with such low sales,” says Balzer. In fact, hummus is now -- and always has been -- a healthy food. A good source of protein and fiber, high in iron and vitamin C. It has never contained glutens. So why is hummus suddenly popular? Look at the packaging. Some brands boast they’re “gluten-free.”
Just to prove that Americans still embrace the Emersonian concept that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Balzer reports major increases in sales of yogurt, a healthy snack, and chips, a notorious source of empty calories.
In a way, these conflicting trends make sense, says Balzer. “The driving force is time and money.” Spoon the yogurt out of the cup. As for chips: “I don’t think you’ll find an easier side dish in America.”
“It’s not really true that you are what you eat,” Balzer maintains for our image-conscious country. “You are what people think you eat.” So have that healthy yogurt as a snack at your desk at work, and those chips at night when no one’s looking.
Here’s a perfect example of the secret side: About 6:30 one evening, I tracked down a healthcare source on her cell phone. She’s the type that has attended a ton of panel discussions on how to get Americans to eat healthier.
She answered a couple questions, then said, “Just a minute.” I heard her muffled voice barking out something about food. I had reached her in a drive-through. I didn’t hear what she ordered, just the last bit: “And super-size it.”
Well, I can’t get too self-righteous. A while back, I worked on an anti-obesity article during the day, then raced off to an evening event. With no time to stop and eat, I too went to a drive-through, eating and burger and fries as I drove to my destination.
Now getting back to my Men’s Health snack -- those wonderful nuts. I could have snacked on a banana my wife packed me -- about 100 calories. I could reached into my desk drawer and pulled out a Quaker Chewy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip granola bar. That tastes good and is also a mere 100 calories. But granola bars -- well, I’ve been eating them quite a while.
So I went for the new: Men’s Health. They were so good I had three packs. Total calories: 750. Still, I washed them down with a Diet Mountain Dew: Zero calories. So I felt pretty good about myself.