Everyday Exploration / Gluten-free foods all the rage, but experts urge caution

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Gluten-free food products of Ogata Village Akitakomachi Rice Producers Co. are displayed in Tokyo. Products such as meat sauces and pasta varieties like penne are popular.

By Akio Oikawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer The gluten-free diet — avoiding wheat and other foods that contain the protein gluten (see below) — is beginning to take hold across the nation.

Said to be easier on the stomach, gluten-free pastas, breads and other foods are made from wheat substitutes such as rice flour. While some hope an increase in products without gluten will lead to more rice consumption, others are concerned that people have unreasonable expectations about the health benefits involved.

At a health foods exhibition held in Tokyo in mid-February, gluten-free foods attracted a great deal of attention from people connected to the food industry. Ogata Village Akitakomachi Rice Producers Co. of Ogata, Akita Prefecture, a developer of gluten-free products, was among the participants. Representative Director Toru Wakui said with a smile, “We’re more popular than we expected.”

Last year, the company began selling nine varieties of pasta made from rice, marketing it as gluten-free. The pasta is now sold in over 4,000 supermarkets and other stores in urban areas, and sales are good. The company is set to expand its lineup to 39 different products, from pasta sauce to curry and stew, and supply them to major supermarkets and other outlets all over the country.

Doctors initially recommended the gluten-free diet for people with celiac disease, who suffer inflammation when they consume gluten because their small intestines cannot process it, as well as those with gluten sensitivity, who experience some negative health effects from gluten consumption.

Steering clear of gluten gradually attracted notice in Europe and America, where people eat a wheat-based diet, as a way to go easier on the intestines and improve physical health. People began to eat more pasta and bread made from rice or corn flour, and also more cooked rice.

The popularity of gluten-free eating began to soar when celebrities such as model Miranda Kerr and tennis player Novak Djokovic wrote in books and other media about incorporating gluten-free foods into their diets. The worldwide market for gluten-free products hit $4.63 billion in 2015, and is projected to increase to $7.59 billion in 2020.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Gluten-free bread baked by Cosmo Vital Inc. in Tokyo. Its appearance is indistinguishable from wheat bread.

In Japan, companies such as Aeon Co. and Seven & i Holdings Co. now sell products such as pasta and gyoza skins made from rice flour, and curry roux made with rice puree. The year 2013 also saw the launch of a general incorporated association called the Gluten Free Life Association based in Tokyo, which aims to further popularize a diet without gluten. Association President Yayoi Forbes said, “You can now easily buy gluten-free products in Japan.”

Last year, food appliance manufacturer Cosmo Vital Inc. in Tokyo developed an oven that produces bread made entirely from rice. The oven uses unique technology to manage the temperature and steam to produce breads that retain their fluffy texture for an extended period. Cosmo Vital says that restaurant chains and others are considering introducing the oven.

The government is also getting involved. It was to publish guidelines about labeling standards this month, with products that meet all criteria to be labeled “non glutinous.” An official in charge at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry expressed hope that gluten-free eating might help popularize rice flour.

However, some are calling for keeping a cool head as gluten-free eating takes off.

“Eating gluten-free without the guidance of a nutritionist or doctor could actually harm your body,” said physician Mutsuko Onishi, who researches food and health in Boston.

Some foods without gluten contain insufficient dietary fiber and other substances. A gluten-free diet is definitely effective for people with celiac disease, but currently there is virtually no medical basis for any health benefits claimed by others.

Nutritionist Rika Kawabata also expressed concern: “I’m afraid that some people will be swept along in this fad and get the wrong idea about some foods.”

Many people do not seem to fully understand gluten-free eating, and opinions about it vary. A close eye should be kept on the situation.

■ Gluten

A protein mainly found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Gluten makes foods such as bread and noodles sticky and elastic. It is also used to bind food products such as gyoza and dumpling skins, hamburgers and curry roux. Speech

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