Gluten, or more accurately, “gluten-free,” is all the craze nowadays. There seems to be an ever-increasing number of people willing to jump on the anti-gluten bandwagon, but many of these folks can’t even answer a simple question: what the hell is gluten? Basically, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. It’s what makes dough stretchy and bread spongy, and oh-so tasty and satisfying to eat. And, it just so happens, a select few of the population have an insensitivity or even a flat-out intolerance toward the stuff.

However, most studies have shown that unless your body is actually gluten intolerant, eliminating it from your diet will neither help nor hurt your health. For the vast majority of the population, gluten is just another food perfectly safe to eat, one that humans have been consuming for thousands of years. But there are people who do have a reason to fear gluten, to be sure. Those with Celiac disease can’t stomach the stuff — literally — as it provokes an autoimmune response that harms their digestive system. Gluten is essentially poison to them and they have every reason to avoid it at all costs.
Before you go scrambling to to see if you have Celiac disease, know that it only affects less than 1% of the world population. But, of course, this doesn’t make it any less real for those who are affected. There are millions of people who have this disease or less serious gluten-sensitivities like it, and thus have a specific reason to be gluten-free. But, in all likelihood, most readers are probably not among that group.

Given that it is only a fraction of the population who has to worry about this protein, what is the reason for the rise in gluten awareness? For one, gluten is very useful and seems to pop up in nearly everything nowadays. It’s tasty and, like a sort of edible glue, thickens whatever you put it in. It’s a common addition for any bread-related food item and is found in just about every “mock meat,” making it very common in the diets of vegetarians. Not only that, but because of its unique properties, gluten has increasingly been found in unexpected places like beer, soy sauce and even lipstick. We are consuming gluten now more than ever, and most of the time, we don’t even know it.

However, the most obvious reason for today’s gluten-free lifestyle is that it’s just another a fad, and like all diets before it, this one definitely has its share of falsehoods. In the 80s “fat” was the thing to stay away from, and by calling a snack “fat free,” companies ensured they stayed popular with the public. Only recently have consumers come to realize that fat free doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, and that we in fact need some types of fat in our diet. I find this new gluten diet very similar to another current trend, the whole “organic” and “natural” craze. Just because something is labeled as coming from nature, doesn’t mean it’s better for you (goat pee can be considered “all-natural,” for example). And, similarly, just because something has gluten in it, doesn’t mean you need to avoid it like the plague.

Now, if being gluten-free means that people start eating fruits and vegetables in place of cookies and muffins, then that’s great. If that’s the case, then gluten-free may be the way to go, even if you aren’t gluten intolerant. Eating too much of anything, gluten included, is bad for your body, and may be the reason that more people are purporting a sensitivity to the stuff. However, if you’re simply replacing normal cookies with gluten-free ones, then realize you aren’t really accomplishing anything. In fact, you might even be doing more harm than good, as many companies add sugar and fat to keep their gluten-free products tasty. So, with all this in mind, make your own decisions. Don’t fall victim to the newest mindless diet just because everyone else is doing it.

Jay Grafft prefers a gluten-full lifestyle.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, May 22, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.