During a trip to the grocery store, consumers can easily observe the augmented quantities of gluten-free or/and lactose free products that are available. It is true that in the recent years, the food industry has made great progress towards the production of such goods, compared to the previous decade. However, is there a reason for the average consumer to purchase them or are they addressed to a more specific audience?
First, gluten is a class of proteins with similar structure and properties, derived from cereals, mainly wheat, rye and barley. It is not by itself a harmful component of food, however genetic factors may make it intolerable by some individuals. The severity of the response in these individuals can range from a brief allergic reaction to a chronic condition called celiac disease. The latter is the genetically determined inflammatory response that occurs each time a person consumes gluten, resulting in a number of gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea and acute pain. Celiac According to data from 2018, celiac disease is found in just 1.4% of the world's population, based on blood tests. Gluten intolerance refers to a milder, which is more common, with a prevalence of 1% to 13%, depending on the population. Both celiac disease and gluten intolerance cause severe symptoms in the lower digestive tract, destroying the structure of the intestinal tract and thus leading to malabsorption of other nutrients, such as iron, calcium and folic acid. The diagnosis can be made by blood tests, or endoscopic examination and biopsy. And while it has become clear that such a pathological condition is quite complex, the solution is very simple: complete avoidance of gluten consumption. Both in the literature and in practice, it has been shown that this dietary adjustment is sufficient for the immediate and permanent improvement of the individual's health.
On the other hand, lactose is the carbohydrate in dairy products. Specifically, it is the disaccharide that results from the binding of a molecule of glucose and one of galactose. Humans absorb these nutrients by "breaking" the bond through the action of the enzyme "lactase", which is found in the intestinal tract. Over the years, a large percentage of the population loses the ability to break this bond and thus becomes lactose intolerant. In particular, 65% of adults worldwide seem to have lactose intolerance, while in the Mediterranean countries the corresponding percentage ranges from 60% to 85%. The main causes are the reduced production of the enzyme or a decrease in its capacity, resulting in the person consuming lactose to suffer from severe abdominal pain, nausea, flatulence (increased gas) and diarrhoea. Unlike gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance is an evolutionary process that aims to “make” the individual find other food sources besides breast milk to ensure his survival. Clearly, in modern times we do not need this inner alteration in order to seek for food alternatives, just a trip to the supermarket. Once more, the solution is simple; complete cessation of lactose products or consumption of only items that are tolerated in appropriate quantities.
The creation of gluten-free and / or lactose-free goods is intended for people with intolerances to have access to foods that normally contain those. It has previously been reported that gluten is a component of cereals, but it is also often used in the food industry as an additive, such as in the production of cold cuts as “glue” or as a coating on fruits to make them look fresher. In recent years, of course, it tends to be replaced in these areas as well. As individual with these conditions often lack other nutrients, excluding whole food groups due to gluten, puts them at risk for even more health issues. So, gluten-free foods are clearly aimed at people whose genetic background does not allow them to consume this ingredient, and not the public. Similarly, lactose-free foods are recommended for people who have symptoms after consuming it. In this case, however, the ingredient is not removed from the food, instead lactase is added to it resulting in exogenous glucose-galactose bond breaking processes. Very often, due to the processes they are subjected to in order to have the desired effect, the aforementioned products tend to have a lower content of certain nutrients and to be more expensive. In conclusion, what the consumer should keep in mind is that in the same way that he does not need antibiotics when
he is healthy, so he does not need gluten / lactose free foods if he is not intolerant.