The Gluten-Free God Is a False God

America’s food fads no longer need to piggyback on religion; they’re a religion in themselves

Sarah Laskow likes bagels, a lot, and can be found on Twitter at @slaskow.

I’ve never been inside the Park Slope Food Co-op. You’re not allowed in if you’re not accompanied by a member, and I am not one. When I first moved to this neighborhood from Manhattan, this was always the first question friends asked—are you going to join?—and I would have a moment to guess if the person asking was a believer or a skeptic, a person who would rhapsodize about the cheap asparagus or a person who would nod in agreement when I explained that I hadn’t quite seen the light.

It’s not a small thing, joining. It requires an initiation and a tithe—an initial investment of $100, as well as a regular Co-op shift, two hours and 45 minutes once every four weeks, a small commitment of time that, given the earning power of the average Co-op member, is worth significantly more than a hundred bucks. Joining also requires submitting to a code of behavior (you can’t buy groceries for friends, all members of your household must join), which is enforced by community sanction, and putting at least some effort into hammering out doctrinal details—whether Israeli-made hummus should be stocked on the shelves, if plastic bags are so problematic they should be banned altogether.

To sign up for all that, it helps if you believe in what Gilbert Seldes called “salvation by personal effort”—the idea that choosing the correct ways of behaving and consuming can make you a better person. Writing in the early 20th century, Seldes was interested in “sects, cults, manias, movements, fads, religious excitements and the relations of each of these to the others and to the orderly progress of America,” and in The Stammering Century, he shows how Americans’ drive for self-improvement is rooted in our heritage of reformist religion. Like so much of this country’s obsession with perfecting the self, the first American food fads were connected with ideas about religious purification. And now that we have managed to make a new faith out of self-improvement, food fads have become belief systems that stand on their own.

Brooklyn is thick with true believers in the purifying power of food—as Seldes wrote, “the more gifted, the more intelligent, the more experienced classes were the first to accept an absurdity and the last to give it up.” (In the 21st century, we know that the most relevant “more” is really “more privileged.”) The Co-op is far from the only neighborhood institution to cater to these notions, and I don’t pretend to be immune: for a couple of months, I joined what may be the yuppiest food group in existence, a “community supported fishery” that provided weekly portions of sustainably caught fish, which someone else had made sure conformed to the strictures of ethical eating.

But Brooklyn is far from the only place that’s caught up in manias like these. And it bothers me how much we’re willing to believe, without questioning, that juice fasts and Paleo diets and “superfoods” will fix us, and what contradictions we’re willing to accept in pursuit of perfect health. Not so long ago, I noticed a sign in a Brooklyn bagel shop boasting of gluten-free bagels, as oxymoronic an idea as Kosher-for-Passover cake, vegetarian bacon, non-alcoholic beer. And while I respect restrictions on diet that are actually religiously determined, and while I think that, yes, eating animals can be weird and gross and bad for the planet, I cannot convince myself to believe in the grace of the gluten-free. Unless you have celiac disease, if you want to eat a bagel that badly, you should just eat a bagel.

Photo by Alex Abboud

Gluten-free bagels worry me because breakfast in America is already bad enough. In France, breakfast might be a buttery croissant; in Germany, it is cheese and bread and meat; Mexico has huevos rancheros; Costa Rica, eggs and beans and rice. But in America, for some reason, we invented breakfast cereal. We thought it would be a good idea to mix together whole wheat and water, bake it into a cracker-like thing, crumble it up, and eat that for breakfast. Dry. The first breakfast cereal was called Granula, which sounds like grain and gruel mixed together and partway digested. In fact, it most closely resembled what is marketed today as Grape-Nuts, and was designed to be eaten without milk or cream. That was what 19th century food faddists thought would be the best and healthiest breakfast: dry Grape-Nuts.

American religion is directly to blame for this. At a time when medicine was still a mysterious, somewhat arbitrary art, religious leaders made health recommendations with authority just as good as a doctor’s. Better, even — a doctor could only try to fix a bodily ailment, but diet advice from a charismatic minister could fix a person’s body and soul.

The national craze for breakfast cereal, in particular— the $8 billion we now spend each year on flakes, clusters, and sugary O’s—can be traced to a woman named Ellen G. White and a vision she had in 1863, in Otsego, Michigan. White had dozens of visions, and each time one began, she would announce “Glory! Glory! Glory!” Her first came when she was sixteen, in 1844, the year that William Miller predicted the Jesus would return. Her family had abandoned their Methodist church to follow Miller, and after it turned out that 1844 would not be the year of the Advent, they could not rejoin their previous congregation. Ellen’s visions set her on a new path, and two decades later, she and her husband James Springer White were leaders of the new Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

White’s 1863 vision was about good health and the necessity of a simple diet; as she would later write, she saw that “Men and women who have corrupted their own bodies by dissolute habits, have also debased their intellects, and destroyed the fine sensibilities of the soul.” To keep their souls sensible, she urged her followers to eat just twice a day, avoid meat, prefer whole wheat bread, and use less salt.

This instruction put White in elite company. By the 1860s, food fads rooted in religion had already gained popularity among the gifted/intelligent/experienced people Seldes described. Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister, had for decades been praising not just whole wheat (including his eponymous—and then sugarless—crackers) but a generally abstemious meat- and alcohol-free diet, on the theory that intemperate consumption was connected to spiritual suffering. (His former home, in a literally delicious piece of irony, is now a decadent pancake restaurant.) In the 1840s, Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott had founded Fruitlands, a short-lived utopian community where vegetarianism was the rule. One Fruitlands member supposedly lived on crackers one year and apples the next; another was kicked out for slipping up and tasting a bit of fish tail. The American Vegetarian Society was formed in 1850, with Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony in attendance at the first meeting.

White wasn’t the first religious food activist, but she was the one most responsible for ruining American breakfast: she chose John Harvey Kellogg to head her institute for health reform. And Kellogg made cereal king.

Kellogg’s ideas about food were simple: “The divine order of life,” he later wrote, “presents, as man’s bill of fare, a dietary of fruits, nuts, and seeds.” (He was also quite taken with the colon, and argued for “Evidence of Divine Intelligence in the Digestive Process.”) But even then, religious beliefs about food were vulnerable to America’s other great belief system: that anything that can be turned into profit should be. Kellogg changed the institute’s name, from the Western Health Reform Institute at Battle Creek to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, grew it into a popular health retreat, and made a fortune off its reputation. By the time his brother was pushing to commercialize one of the institute’s inventions—corn flakes—Kellogg had made enough money that he wasn’t even particularly interested in selling flattened grains. It was his brother, Will, who founded the Kellogg Company and marketed the cereal—after adding sugar.

The food fads of the 1960s and 70s were not religious, but they had the same purifying impulse, sometimes explicitly so. (Naming a mix of baked oats, seeds and dried fruit “granola” was, for instance, a deliberate call-back to Granula.) Modern food executives weren’t as quick to catch on the market potential of purifying foods as Will Kellogg, though; the food industry’s first instinct was to push back against this heresy.

In 1974, for example, Lois D. McBean and Elwood W. Speckmann, of the National Dairy Council’s Division of Nutrition Research, published a paper on challenges of food faddism. They were particularly concerned about the Zen Macrobiotic movement, with its promise of “a spiritual awakening or rebirth,” and its nutritional shortfalls, which a New Jersey grand jury had linked to scurvy and, in some cases, death. But “organic, health, and natural foods,” with their “false promise of superior health,” all came in for criticism, along with the people susceptible to their charms—the “miracle seekers…the alienated or anti-establishment, ritual or authority seekers, those pursuing ‘super’ health such as athletes, the paranoiacs or extremists, ‘truth’ seekers, fashion followers, and the ‘afraid.’” And New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs once proposed banning the use of “health food,” “organic food” and “natural food.”

But, like W.K. Kellogg before them, the leaders of food companies realized, eventually, that miracle seekers and extremists made good customers. Extremists would extol the benefits of their choices, and work to convince others that health foods were the path to a better life. Miracle seekers would proselytize for products that the industry could sell at a premium. True believers were a boon, not a threat.

These days, a gluten-free version of a particular product can cost three times as much as its standard equivalent. That bagel shop’s bid for the gluten-free consumers is just one tiny entry in the $10.5 billion Americans spent on gluten-free products last year. The people spending this money aren’t just those diagnosed with celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder in which gluten wreaks havoc on a person’s intestines. Celiac disease affects about one percent of Americans. Even the more murky “gluten sensitivity” applies, at best, to six percent of the population. Almost a third of Americans say they’re trying to cut down on gluten, to lose weight, to boost energy, to feel, magically, healthier.

At least some of that $10.5 billion (a figure that’s only growing) came from the pockets of this last group. Because they believe in promise of gluten-free—that it will make them feel better. That it will make them be better.

Photo by rmkoske

As animals in need of nourishment, the first question we ask is “What’s available to put in our bodies?” But in America, with all its abundance, we’ve long since moved onto the next order question: “What’s best to put in our bodies?” When food fads came from religion, the authority to answer that question came, as in Ellen G. White’s case, directly from God. But outside of religion, even with all of our science and diet obsession, we haven’t been able to answer that question more authoritatively, We can’t say for certain “Well, if you’re going to be sitting all day, you need X amount of this, Y amount of that, and you should consume it in the form of these nutritious pretzels.” (Or this gray liquid—whichever pseudo-dystopian solution you prefer.)

In the absence of perfect nutritional science, the gluten-free diet isn’t the first, last, or only rite to which people in search of answers will ascribe secret powers. But gluten-free food, in particular, benefits from addressing a problem where science has few answers.

Gluten, when it does hurt people, punches them in the gut. It messes with digestion, and for celiacs, can degrade the inner lining of the intestines. And, even in this day of modern medicine, the gut is still as mysterious as the entire body was in the 1800s. Stomach-aches are one of the most common complaints doctors face, and often they cannot explain or cure them. We just recently lit on the idea of the microbiome, and the hope that we can cultivate the right kind of bacteria in our bodies. Doctors have started transplanting, via enema, fecal bacteria from one person to another. It works, yes, but it has a lot in common with magical thinking: the tiny creatures in your intestines are unhealthy, and so we need to find you healthy, good, invisible creatures to live inside you. In this context, the promise that one particular protein might be ruining a person’s stomach situation doesn’t seem like so much of a stretch.

Food companies, though, aren’t actually interested in the question of what’s best to put in our bodies. They’re interested in a third question: “What people will pay the most money for?” And the answer is “food they think will make them virtuous” — but also “food that tastes like it’s sinful.” As long as a gluten-free diet means giving up cookies, pasta, white bread, cake, muffins, and a litany of other sugary foods that actually are hard on the body, it will deliver on some of its promise. This miracle of healing, though, will only last until food conglomerates figure out how to make gluten-free food as sinful as gluten-ful food. In the past couple of years, the gluten-free options for cakes, and bagels and all the stuff that you’d benefit from not eating have multiplied — and while that’s great for celiacs, it’s less helpful for the people paying three times as much for food that’s going to tax their bodies as much as the standard version. They may still feel virtuous, but they won’t actually feel better. Only the food companies will actually have anything positive to show for these purchases—a fat, satisfying profit..

Seldes began his book project wanting to prove that the people caught up in the movements of his day were arrogant. Instead, he became fascinated with “the strange and incalculable movement of human beings in the stress of life, the mysterious designs of baffled men and women to whom common life was a labyrinth without a clew [sic] and without a door.” People who believe in the power of diet to make a person whole aren’t arrogant, or stupid. Like all of us, they’re looking for an easy way to make life feel valid and meaningful; food companies just happen to know that a spoonful (or a few cups) of sugar helps make any medicine, whether it’s Grape-Nuts, granola, or gluten-free crackers, go down easier.

There’s a difference though, between people like Ellen G. White and today’s fad-promoting food executives. Seldes’ subjects were trying to sell ideas. At this point in American history, we’re just being sold products. And we’re buying exactly what we’re being sold, telling ourselves all the while that it makes us good people, that we’re saving our bodies and maybe our souls. In truth, all we’re getting is something that looks like a bagel but tastes like false hope.

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