In the luxe dining room of Del Posto, one of New York’s most heralded and expensive Italian restaurants, one-third of the tables on any given night will have at least one gluten-free diner.
Mark Ladner, the restaurant’s chef and widely considered to be one of the best pasta cooks in the nation, knows it is a remarkable number. Gluten, the protein in wheat that gives dough its elasticity, has been a key ingredient in his culinary success. But Ladner also knows gluten-free dining remains a big and growing business, so he offers each of his pasta dishes, down to his 100-layer lasagna, in gluten-free form.
Similar gluten-free dishes, like pasta made with rice and corn starches and chewy focaccia, are woven into the menus at all the restaurants owned by Del Posto’s proprietors, Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich, Bastianich’s mother. “It really has become a thing, and I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon,” Ladner said.
A decade ago, few people other than those with celiac disease, a digestive condition, knew much about the health implications of gluten. But today, if you aren’t gluten-free, you likely know someone who is or is trying to be. The style of eating has become a way of life for many and a national punch line for others. More than a quarter of Americans say they are cutting down on gluten or eliminating it entirely. Optimistic researchers predict the market for gluten-free products will hit $15.6 billion by 2016. The Food and Drug Administration has noted the diet trend as well, and passed new labeling laws for gluten-free products to take effect in August.
Diet fads come and go. But observers of nutrition and eating trends in the United States say this food regimen is likely to last longer and have more impact because it comes at a time when food allergies, digestive health, genetic modification of grain and other concerns about the American diet are at an all-time high and food itself is the current cultural currency. Gluten-free eating addresses it all.
“We are in this period of cacophony with food, where people are more engaged and more confused,” said Amy Bentley, an associate professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s touching on very complicated issues in the food system right now.”
The number of people for whom eliminating gluten is a medical necessity is small. About 1 percent of the population has been found to have celiac disease, a disorder in which gluten – a protein in barley, rye and wheat – can damage the small intestine. Another 6 percent of the population is more broadly classified as gluten intolerant.
But the diet itself is used by people who want to lose weight, reduce inflammation, curb fatigue and ease other conditions, or because it helps them avoid highly processed grain. Many simply say they feel better without it, though there is not yet much scientific evidence to back up the claims.
For chefs, gluten-free eating could change forever the role of grains in the kitchen just as the French nouvelle cuisine movement led to lighter, simpler dishes that considered the health of the diner as well as the taste of the raw ingredients.
“I think that every big food tsunami that comes along, it leaves the ripples of an aftereffect, which is good,” said Lidia Bastianich, who offers gluten-free pasta and bread at her New York restaurant, Felidia. “There’s a reality out there of all these allergies. Our bodies are reacting to something in how we eat.”
But the trend does make for challenging dinner parties. As a character in a recent New Yorker cartoon said, “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week, but I’m already really annoying.”
The late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel, who said he suspected that some people don’t eat gluten because someone in their yoga class told them not to, spoofed the diet by filming health conscious, gluten-free Southern Californians who were stumped when asked to describe what gluten is. The video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube.
“A lot of what is happening is so antagonistic because it seems so trendy,” said Janet Page-Reeves, a cultural anthropologist at the University of New Mexico whose research into the social implications of gluten intolerance and food allergies will be published in a coming issue of the journal Food Culture and Society.
From a marketing angle, avoiding gluten is on track to become more widespread than the low-carbohydrate diet, championed by Dr. Robert Atkins, and its less-restrictive sister, the South Beach Diet.
The low-carb trend, which at one point had McDonald’s considering a bunless burger, peaked in 2004 as a $2.7 billion business in the United States. Market researchers put the number of people on it at that time between 9 and 18 percent.
The gluten-free business could reach at least $6.6 billion by 2017, according to an estimate by the research company Packaged Facts. About 28 percent of adults say they are interested in cutting down on or avoiding gluten completely, according to tracking numbers from the NPD Group, which monitors U.S. diet trends.
Sandy Altizer, 37, a registered dietitian with celiac disease who runs a support group at a children’s hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., helped organize the Gluten-Free Vendor Fair, a food festival, at the end of May that drew more than 1,100 people.
Some were celiac sufferers or had been diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Others were people who simply find that eating less gluten makes them feel healthier.
“Food is really my medicine,” said Altizer, who says the glut of gluten-free humor makes her more sad than angry.
Despite the jokes, there is an upside to her diet’s place in popular culture. “All of the celebrities and these people on a gluten-free diet without a medical necessity are prompting food companies to make better products for me to eat,” she said.
Ladner did not set out to become a champion of haute gluten-free cooking. “Over the last maybe three or four years, most of my creative energy has been going to mitigating dietary restrictions,” he said. “We just decided to embrace it. It was a philosophical change that really, really changed our world in a wonderful way.”
He says the diet is prompting many of his fellow chefs to explore new grains and cooking techniques. Ladner himself is so sure of the longevity of limiting gluten that he plans a chain of quick-service restaurants called Pasta Flyer where bowls of gluten-free pasta will be the stars.
The attention to grain and gluten at the highest levels of gastronomy shows a merging of two main thrusts of American eating: one based on health and the environment and another that celebrates pleasure and deliciousness, Ladner and others say.
To be sure, shunning gluten remains a narrow pursuit in the vast food landscape. Artisan breads and bagels have never been more popular, and there is a deep vein of gluten lovers who are willing to stand in line for Cronuts and pursue with singular focus the very best pizza. And it is not an easy or necessarily inexpensive diet to pursue, which adds an air of elitism.
A gluten-free diet is also unpopular for unexpected reasons. Some Christians question it in light of the many biblical references to grain. In certain immigrant communities, eating the same, traditional food is a way of keeping the culture intact. Rejecting a roti or a flour tortilla can mean feeling like an outcast.
In other circles, eating gluten-free is dismissed outright as a trend for the rich, the white and the political left. “There are people who could probably benefit from going gluten-free but won’t because they see it as those crazy lefties who are gluten-free,” Page-Reeves said.
Some who have watched food trends come and go for decades predict gluten-free will fade as fast as the low-fat SnackWell’s cookie.
“Anything that cuts out huge amounts of calories is attractive to us, and as long as people continue to think they feel better or their kids are behaving better, they’ll continue to do it,” said Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who has written several books on the nation’s food supply.
“There really isn’t much better dietary advice than eating your veggies, exercising and limiting calories,” she said. “People just seem to like making eating difficult for themselves.”