By Ben Radstein, Staff Reporter

"Gluten Free" is the current craze among shoppers seeking healthier food, but what does that mean? Do people really know? This was the subject of a survey recently done by The Helvetica Institute. Surveyors asked hundreds of people in grocery stores and on the street two questions: "Are you avoiding gluten in your diet?", and "What is gluten?" About half of those who responded confirmed that they are avoiding gluten, but nearly none could correctly say what it is.

"Gluten? Yeah, that's a sugar. Diabetics should avoid it for sure" said Paul Smith. No, he was thinking of glucose. Glucose, not gluten, is the simplest sugar; the one diabetics need to track the levels of in their blood. "Gluten is a pesticide they spray on vegetables" said Stephanie Williams. "Really nasty stuff! I'm not feeding that to my kids." Hank Kuhn answered, "Yes, gluten is an antibiotic they feed to livestock, no wait! It was that growth hormone they give to cows to make more milk." He paused to think, then said, "Well, it is definitely one of those."  "Gluten? I don't know what it is, but all my girlfriends tell me it's bad so I ain't having none of that." said a women who declined to give the surveyor her name. Answers like hers were by far the most common.

For the record, gluten is a protein that forms in rising dough made of grains such as wheat, barley, spelt and rye. For most people, it is a perfectly healthy source of protein. However, to those suffering from a rare condition called celiac disease, gluten is poison. Even a tiny amount can make them sick. Why is such a rare condition causing such a furor? Because of another condition hypochondriacs and holistic snake oil charlatans tout; gluten intolerance, also sometimes called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This alleged condition has been extensively studied, and no evidence that it actually exists has been found. Some people do seem to have a sensitivity to grains, but gluten is not the culprit.

Has this diet fad done any harm? Yes, says lead researcher Dr. Simon Hurtz. Because "Gluten Free" is a buzzword, it is being slapped onto the labels of hundreds of products, many of which aren't really gluten free. They contain trace amounts that are enough to make a celiac sufferer sick. Some people with celiac have resorted to specially trained gluten sniffing dogs. That is the only way they can be sure. Dr. Hurtz pointed out that he has seen places like pizza restaurants advertising gluten free crusts. "That is silly," he stated. "As someone who has celiac can not even safely enter a pizza joint, or any place that uses flour. The instant those gluten free crusts are removed from plastic wrapping, they are cross-contaminated. It is even possible for flour particles wafting through the air to irritate celiac sufferers."

One study alone isn't enough evidence to draw a conclusion, so Helvetica Institute submitted their findings to other institutions for peer review. Dr. Richard Payne of Brandine University said. "I concur with Professor Hurtz's findings. Dr. Martin Pratt and I also studied the gluten free fad. Our surveys also show that the people who are afraid of gluten are avoiding it based solely on hearsay, and have no idea what it is."

There you have it. Other than for people who have celiac disease, gluten free is just another silly diet fad. I am going to continue to enjoy my breads and pastas with no worries. You should, too.