Thursday, October 8, 2009

An article free of gluten and serious questions

The Portland Press Herald started off this article wrong right from the subhead.

Gluten-free on the rise
An increasing number of Maine businesses are banking on the foods' growing popularity.

It's ambiguous enough to imply that gluten is becoming more popular, when in fact, it's irrational fear of gluten that's on the rise. In a similar spirit to chronic Lyme disease, glutenphobes blame a wide, vague and often contradictory list of symptoms on gluten. Who can't say they've had unexplained weight gain, weight loss, fatigue or a hangnail?

Is it any wonder the anti-gluten activists claim up to half the population is allergic to this protein?

The Press Herald story continued, but it didn't get much better.

The products were developed because of the Stefanos' need to remove gluten from the diet of their son Marco.

Five years ago, when he was 15, he started suffering from depression and anxiety. A cousin with similar issues had responded well when gluten was removed from his diet. The Stefanos followed suit and Marco's well-being improved.

The obvious question is, did Marco ever see a doctor and take a blood test for celiac disease? It certainly doesn't sound like it.

Celiac disease, where a person really is allergic to gluten, does exist. I'm not arguing that it doesn't. What I'm simply saying it sounds like the usual problems associated with someone diagnosing a medical illness after clicking through a quick, online quiz decorated with cute photos.

There was also a person in the article who sold gluten-free dog food.

He believes that some customers are motivated by their dogs' food allergies while others like supporting a Maine business that is supplied by Maine growers.

Sometimes customers turn to his dog biscuits because of their own health issues.

"In some instances, where it's not the dog that has the gluten intolerance, but the owner is celiac," he said, "they don't have to have a sock on their hand when they feed their dog a treat."

Psychosomatic anyone? Placebo effect? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? None of these concepts exist in the world of this story, although there is a quick shout out to the buy local crowd. Sometimes flawed minds do think alike.

Maybe it's not fair to single out the Press Herald on this one. The reporter and editorial team were probably never trained in reporting science or health issues and just winged it, and certainly most news teams would have handled this the same way. Still, when you put out a newspaper and you can't be bothered to learn to separate myth from reality, you're doing something wrong.

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