I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to gluten-free eating, but I’ve learned quite a bit over the past year. In large part, that has been the result of tagging along on the beautiful epicurean’s dietary adventure. As I’ve learned more about it in general, I’ve found myself giving more thought to the role it already plays and could potentially play in my training. Just as gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance and full-blown Celiac’s Disease diagnoses have exploded in recent years, so too have the products marketed at those living with these conditions.
I find it very interesting that these products typically find their way into the health food section of most supermarkets. They have been quickly embraced by the health-food community, and folks have flocked to adopt a gluten-free diet without much information on the overall benefits of these products. As I’ve indicated before, I have fully embraced many facets of a healthy diet, and I continue my quest for the perfect running fuel to sustain me during longer and longer distances. As such, I’ve made it a point to keep my mind open to as many new nutrition products as possible in the hopes that one of them will provide that perfect energy!
Enter the Gluten & Allergen Free Expo. These events, which are being held across the country, bring together food and natural health product vendors from across the country, all hoping to make their mark on the gluten-free demographic. We had read about the expo several weeks ago, and were already planning on going when we entered a drawing at our local grocery store for free tickets. As luck would have it, we both won a ticket, so we were able to attend the expo as guests of HyVee!
After driving around for a bit more time than either of us had patience to accommodate, we found the expo nestled in a convention space that was located on the grounds of an amusement park of some sort. After living in Iowa for 8 years, I’m sure I’ve heard of the park before, but I really had no idea what it was, and it proved to be a strange cross between a wild west ghost town and Pleasantville. There were over 100 vendors on hand to display their wares, so we had plenty of exploring to do. While walking around and sampling food, it was refreshing (especially for the epicurean) to be able to casually taste all of the samples without worrying about the gluten content. We tried everything from soup to beer, although a large majority of the vendors were showcasing various baked goods and mixes.
What was fairly consistent among the vendors was the reality of processed food. Now that I’m looking more intentionally at gluten-free products while shopping, I’ve increasingly noticed just how similar the products really are to everything else on the shelf. Stores are placing gluten-free products in health food sections and marking them as such, but they often contain just as much processed sugar as their gluten-laden counterparts. Now, I will definitely say that a larger percentage of these products are going to be better for you overall, but I have no doubt that as the demographic increases along with diagnoses, I will see more and more gluten-free versions of the same foods I avoid already.
Part of the difficulty in trying to flush out the role of gluten-free products seems to be the marketing and regulation of gluten-free products in the food industry. The FDA has been discussing how to regulate gluten-free products since 2005, and is just now reaching a conclusion on industry standards that they can enforce in content and labeling. They have been holding open forums and inviting feedback and questions from the public, much like they do with other new regulations they are considering implementing. It looks like they are going to settle on a designation of 20 ppm as the threshold for a product being labeled gluten-free. Many products claim to have far less gluten than this, but the scientific testing hasn’t advanced far enough for these claims to be substantiated. In addition, many products right now may indeed be free of wheat gluten but still contain rye or barley gluten. The choices for consumers have never been more difficult! There are currently two organization, the Gluten Free Certification Organization, and the Celiac Sprue Association, that certify products as gluten-free, so looking for their logos can give you some indication that the product has been tested for all possible sources of gluten, including vague classifications such as artificial flavorings.
Now, much like so many other subsets of the population, the running community has been swept up in the gluten-free discussion as well. There are countless recipes out there for gluten-free nutrition, energy sources for runners, and post-workout meals. In addition, gluten-free living is being linked to cleaner eating, and vegan diets more and more. Although these are not the same thing, there are some connections. Amazing runners, such as Scott Jurek and Rich Roll are making this healthy diet trend that much more compelling! However, if you don’t suffer from CD or Gluten-Intolerance, then simply giving up gluten but continuing to each processed foods is not going to aid your running performance. Nutritionists will still tell you that a diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains is important for energy, endurance, and recovery. In addition, the stories I read about ordinary runners who are cooking and eating gluten-free tend to all have something else in common- healthy, fresh foods, and a lack of processed sugar.
In the end, the expo was a good reminder for me that eating healthy isn’t simply a matter of buying the right products. I certainly enjoyed hearing more about a host of products I had never tried before, and we walked away with quite a few samples to try. Choice is everywhere in our lives, and eating healthy needs to be a part of a healthy lifestyle, which ultimately permeates everything I do. The increase in gluten-related sensitivities will certainly continue to play a significant role in the health of our population, as well as the products we consume. For those individuals that are forced to adjust to these changes, the influx of gluten-free products is definitely a positive sign of increased awareness on the part of the general public. As with most things, however, increased choice and increased access to information means being a responsible consumer is that much more important. Running clean will always be more than simply what you eat. Running clean is about how you live!