The Gluten Dilemma for Retailers

    gluten-free diet

    If you missed Jaqui’s last article “The Gluten Dilemma for Food Manufacturers”, we suggest you read it first: click here. 

    Retailers are in somewhat of a sticky position when it comes to selling gluten free food. The mindset is: “We’re not making food, we’re only selling it”. But it might not be that simple, not for all retailers anyway.

    The Dilemma: Do they follow the (constantly fluctuating) law, or do they warn their clients that the “certified gluten free” product in their hands isn’t necessarily 100% safe. This isn’t a visible problem in giant stores that are impersonal because no one is expecting a Walmart clerk to know the ins and outs of food science. But what about Whole Foods? Supplement stores? Specialty food shops? Health shops?

    What is a reasonable expectation from a consumer who sees someone in a white lab coat walking the aisles and answering questions?

    In many cases, retailers are the only health advisor a consumer will see. Alarming, but it’s our reality, right behind Dr. Google.


    Currently, 35% of developed countries are choosing gluten free, both for medically diagnosed reasons and informal lifestyle choice. That 35% can be divided into 3 main groups:

    1) Hollywood followers or looking for weight loss, these are the transients who will come and go.

    2) The medically diagnosed need no discussion.

    3) Finally, there are those who know they don’t do well with gluten and are choosing to stay off it regardless of medical diagnoses, if they even bothered testing to begin with.

    …On that last group who are listening to their bodies, should they be denied their right when we know we have a seriously flawed system when it comes to gluten? Consider:

    1) NCGS (Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity) is 6 times more prevalent(1) than Celiac Disease, and harder to test for.

    2) Testing for Celiac itself is flawed, following the Marsh Method(2), which scales intestinal damage in stages and won’t diagnose positive until the patient is at worst stage of damage (Imagine we did that with cancer? Imagine we only diagnosed at Stage 4? How many patients would we miss?)

    3) On average, a person diagnosed with Celiac Disease goes decades(3) undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and that’s from the time they went to their doctor complaining of symptoms or pain. We’re not counting those who are taught to believe stomach upsets or headaches or any number of issues are “normal” and they silently suffer their entire lives.

    As for the officially diagnosed, the number of people affected is nowhere near the public reports. Click here to read my article “The Celiac 1% Myth”.


    1) Know your client. “Have you been diagnosed with Celiac, or do you feel awful when you eat gluten?” Someone following their favorite Hollywood star’s diet might not need to know about discrepancies or trace amounts, everyone else has a right to know what’s in that box labeled “certified gluten free” (I’ll address the reasons those unregulated little Certified GF labels are flawed in a future article).

    2) Know the topic at clinical levels or admit to the client that you don’t. This gives them a heads up that they must do their research.

    3) Know your products and the potential issues that might be surrounding them. You don’t have to assume the responsibility of full medical knowledge, but know enough to let your customer know there’s more to it than shiny marketing labels.

    All of the above brings us back to The Gluten Dilemma for Retailers: What is their responsibility as brokers and not manufacturers? That’s an ethical question that I can’t address. But this article, and the previous one “The Gluten Dilemma for Food Manufacturers”, both give you some hard facts to consider. As long as we’re having the conversation, we’re headed in the right direction.


    (1) Jackson JR, Eaton WW, Cascella NG, Fasano A, Kelly DL. Neurologic and Psychiatric Manifestations of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. The Psychiatric quarterly. 2012;83(1):91-102. doi:10.1007/s11126-011-9186-y.

    (2) Dickson BC, Streutker CJ, Chetty R. Coeliac disease: an update for pathologists. Journal of Clinical Pathology. 2006;59(10):1008-1016. doi:10.1136/jcp.2005.035345.

    (3) NEJM Oct 23, 2003;1673-4