I admit it. I, like many others, have fallen for the "clean eating" fad. Spurred on by tiny bloggers in bikinis, I stocked my cupboard with quinoa, lentils and bulgur wheat. I embarked on a gluten-free, low carb, high protein diet.
I hoped it would help ease the tummy complaints I have suffered for years, and give me the super slender frame of the gormless bloggers incessantly giggling at me through my iPhone screen. Unfortunately, no such luck. I decided to have a look into where I was going wrong and how food brands were adapting to our clean eating world.
The rise of blogger-pseudoscience
Clean eating is associated with the healthy lifestyle popularised by influential bloggers such as Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella), the Hemsley sisters and Amelia Freer. The key principle has been to eliminate processed food, reduce salt intake, eat more vegetables, cut gluten, dairy, and soya. Some promote going vegan or eating entirely raw food.
Such diets promise a range of health benefits - reduced risk of disease, improved digestion, improved mental health, healthier teeth and gums, shinier hair - the list goes on. However, the movement has been accompanied by lots of misinformation and pseudoscience and attracting criticism from scientists, nutritionists and the press.
While some of the core principles of clean eating do match up with research for losing weight or preventing ill health - such as eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, sticking to wholegrains and limiting processed food - there are some that don't stack up.
Take, for example, detox diets. Almost every clean eating 'guru' has their own version. These diets promise to purge our bodies of nasty toxins, help us lose weight and improve our overall wellbeing. As someone who suffers from 'hanger' (hunger-anger), I was relieved to find that detoxing is a waste of time. There is simply no need as your liver and kidneys are already doing this. Restricting your diet in this way will simply do you more harm than good.
The knock-on effect to consumers and food brands
One positive to come out of the clean eating phenomenon is that we are more aware of what we put into our bodies. Millennials, who have grown up during the social media driven, digital age, in particular, are highly aware of what they eat. In fact, millennials eat 52% more vegetables than their older counterparts. Which can only be a good thing, right?
On the whole, consumers are becoming more aware of ingredients in their food, and with more demand for gluten and wheat-free products, growth in this sector is predicted at 12% by 2021 (Technavio). In less than ten years there has been a jump in food and drink products in the 'free-from' sector, from 1% to 7%.
Mark Schneider, chief executive of Nestlé, has described the growth in the organic category as a "key opportunity", with the company noting: "We are aware that people suffer from certain intolerances and are developing and producing products to meet their needs, for example, gluten-free and lactose-free."
Sainsbury's said it had almost doubled the number of products in its free-from range in September and had expanded in-store space for those product lines. The supermarket group also launched gluten-free bread in its in-store bakeries in February.
The great gluten-free lie
The problem is that for many people, gluten sensitivity is simply in their head. In reality only 1 in 100 are diagnosed with coeliac disease. Yet, despite the low numbers, the popularity of a gluten-free lifestyle is on the rise in the UK, US and Australia.
Many people are self-diagnosed and eat gluten-free by choice. In one study, up to 63% of people followed a gluten-free diet after being self-diagnosed or at the advice of an alternative healthcare professional. While the numbers of those suffering from coeliac disease are on the rise, many are still going undiagnosed due to their reluctance to seek professional medical advice.
It has been repeatedly proven that dietary restrictions such as a dairy-free diet or gluten-free diet are nutritionally substandard. Furthermore, drastic changes to diets in coeliacs can cause increased levels of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety.
This is just one example of the dangers of the pseudoscience spouted by bloggers, rather than scientists, and the consequences it could bring.
Is the gluten-free a bubble that's about to burst?
The stark reality is that many gluten-free foods are not healthier for the estimated 93% of the population that doesn't have celiac disease or suffer from gluten sensitivity.
Furthermore, many see eating gluten-free as a tool for losing weight. However, many dieticians have discounted this, and have highlighted that some gluten-free foods tend to be higher in calories than their regular, wheat-based counterparts.
I find it shocking that social media has had such an effect on our buying habits when it comes to food. And, food brands are starting to stand up and listen to their consumers' demands. With numbers of gluten-free products on the rise, it's a reminder of the power of social media on consumers and retailers alike.
The sad reality is that fad diets will always exist. There will always be people who strive to imitate the unobtainable, celeb, beach-ready body. On the bright side, while a gluten-free diet clearly isn't necessary or beneficial for everyone, it's great that for those who do suffer with coeliac disease will now have more choice in the supermarket aisle.