Kneaded Transparency: Ethical Perspectives on the Rise of Gluten-free Blogs

Below is a paper I wrote for my Ethics in Journalism class last semester.  This is my response to pseudoscience that persists on gluten-free blogs

 

        

“Imagine a world in which you could freely communicate with anyone you chose, but you could never be sure that what others told you was truthful or accurate, or even whether anyone ever actually cared about such things”—Plaisance

 

Introduction

         Gluten-free Industry

In the US today, we are bombarded with messages from “experts” that claim innocuous foods are the cause of various illnesses; from obesity and gastrointestinal issues, to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Although scientific research can readily disprove these “pseudoscientists,” and invalidate their credibility, they maintain a dedicated following. In particular, the gluten-free movement has gained a bandwagon-like following after the publication of books such as “Wheat Belly” and “Grain Brain.” The gluten-free industry has proliferated over the years as the demand for gluten-free food products has skyrocketed (Kluger, 2014).

Studies have shown that unless a person has celiac disease or a wheat allergy, a gluten-free diet could actually be harmful, resulting in nutrient deficiencies (Strawbridge, 2013). Yet bloggers and writers alike who praise the benefits of a gluten-free diet are biased in that they have a gluten related medical condition or an industry built on gluten-free products. This causes cherry picking and exaggerating scientific research that could ultimately be damaging to unsuspecting, healthy lay people. Ignoring the credibility principles laid out by Plaisance (2013) and journalism ethics, these bloggers are amplifying the pseudoscience behind gluten intolerance.

Blogging

Blogging started as the emergence of various online journals with the purpose of sharing thoughts and ideas with others. The number of blogs has risen from 23 in 1999 to over 1.5 billion in 2014 (eZaroorat). Today 23% of Internet time is spent on blogs and 77% of Internet users read blogs (McGrail, 2013). Blogs are an influential form of communication as they rank favorably with consumers for trust, popularity, and influence (Redsicker, 2013). Additionally, 90% of 18—24 year olds reported that they would trust medical information shared by others on social media (Appendix A). Lastly, NPR reported that 1/3 of Americans are currently trying to go gluten-free (Shute, 2013). The data suggests that blogs can have a prominent impact on public health and diet trends. Gluten-free blogs in particular have the potential to motivate the general public to adopt the author’s diet and lifestyle. For example, even though Dr. William Davis, author of “Wheat Belly,” acknowledges on his blog that his posts should not be taken as medical advice, the comments on his blog show that people do follow his teachings and think that his recommendation to cut out all grains is sound medical advice.

This illustrates alarming evidence that blogs tend to be biased, ideological, and written by people who have similar interests to them. Because blogs have the potential to influence people’s opinions and perceived risks, they can play a large role in amplifying the pseudoscience and confusion existing behind gluten intolerance.

The gluten-free fad has taken what is a terrible disease for a small portion of the population and turned it into a trendy, multibillion-dollar industry. The Internet, including gluten-free blogs, has socially amplified the risks of gluten consumption. This movement brings up key ethical issues in journalism: bias, conflict of interest, and failure to seek truth in reporting. Gluten-free bloggers have an ethical duty as journalists to reduce the economic and health related harms caused by gluten-free living to those without a medically confirmed wheat allergy or celiac disease.

The Pseudoscience of Gluten Intolerance

As three distinct conditions related to gluten (Sanghavi, 2013) have become more apparent to the general public, the public perception of gluten has turned negative. The first condition, celiac, is a genetic, autoimmune disease. People who have this condition must avoid eating gluten because they experience extreme pain and small intestine damage when they consume food containing gluten (Celiac Disease Foundation, 2015). One percent of the US population has celiac disease, but only a small portion of those afflicted have been properly diagnosed (Sanghavi, 2013). The second medical condition related to gluten is wheat allergy: “an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat” (Mayo Clinic, 2015). The wheat specific antibody IgE causes an allergic reaction when someone with the allergy consumes food containing gluten (Sanghavi, 2013). Like patients with celiac disease, those with a wheat allergy must completely eliminate foods with gluten from their diet to avoid serious allergic reactions.

The third ailment related to gluten is supported by little peer-reviewed science, and no universally accepted diagnosis: gluten intolerance. According to Sanghavi, gluten intolerance is “not either an autoimmune disorder, like celiac disease, nor an allergy, like true wheat allergy” (2013). Other synonyms of gluten intolerance are: “gluten sensitivity” and “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” Unlike celiac disease, gluten intolerance does not damage the small intestine. However, patients who claim to have GI report having gastro-intestinal issues, fatigue, and headaches as a consequence of gluten consumption (Web MD, 2015). The issue with diagnosing this condition is that there is no blood test (how people with celiac get diagnosed) or any scientifically grounded medical procedure that can confirm or deny a gluten intolerance/sensitivity. Thus, people who claim to be GI base their diagnosis on their “subjective feelings of bloating, bowel changes, or mental fogginess after eating gluten” (Sanghavi, 2013). Without a well-established diagnosis, it’s impossible to either confirm or deny whether someone is legitimately GI.

The pseudoscience behind GI stems from reliance on individuals’ perceptions of what they consider to be symptoms of GI, rather than peer-reviewed science. As Sanghavi puts it: “This is a set-up for all manner of pseudo-scientific self-diagnoses, especially when you consider that 2 percent of people believe they have illnesses caused by magnetic fields” (2013). With no one to be able to fairly refute otherwise, and with vague symptoms that could be attributed to countless other ailments, anybody can claim to be GI. To further complicate matters, a study found that non-celiac wheat sensitivity is a distinct clinical condition (Carroccio, A., et al., 2012). To date, this is the only study to suggest gluten intolerance is indeed a medical condition, and has not been tested or repeated by any other researchers to date. Although this is the first and only study providing evidence that supports the legitimacy of GI, this article is often cited by gluten-free blogs as scientific confirmation that their diet is the best choice for people who don’t necessarily have a confirmed disease or wheat allergy.

When exactly the gluten-free fad diet started is not known, but what is clear is that the amplification of the risks of eating gluten took off when health bloggers started promoting gluten-free diets to lose weight. As with any fad diet, the promise of shedding pounds and looking healthier is much more appealing than adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes proper nutrition and exercise. The gluten-free movement appeals to people because it is framed like a cure-all for numerous health issues. In an article that explains why fad diets exist, Robyn A. Osborn, RD, PhD, states that:

“People are very much intrigued by those things that seem to demystify the whole thing — there’s some magic hormone, or there’s something in your blood type, you have to eat certain foods together because of how they’re metabolized. That has to be it. It couldn’t be something as simple as I need to eat less and I need to exercise more” (Downs, M., 2005).

Marketers have taken advantage of the gluten-free craze as an opportunity to make money while providing consumers with gluten-free products. The ease of buying gluten-free foods has steadily increased as food companies replace gluten containing products and clearly label their products as gluten-free. According to Kluger, the gluten-free industry is a lucrative, multi-million dollar business. From 2010 to 2014, sales of products in the U.S. labeled as “gluten-free” rose from $11.5 billion to $23 billion (Kluger, 2014). Advocates of gluten-free diets are profiting too. Dr. Perlmutter, author of the bestseller “Grain Brain,” has created an empire on top of his book earnings by selling things from Coconut oil to an $8,500 brain detoxification retreat (Levinovitz, 2003). Going gluten-free however, is expensive. A study found that on average, gluten-free products cost 242% more than regular products (Stevens, 2008).

One may question why meeting the demands of consumers is necessarily harmful. If people chose to go gluten-free because they report feeling better on a gluten-free diet, does it matter that these companies are profiting from meeting public demand?

The answer, in short, is yes.

Not only are gluten-free foods not beneficial to your health if you do not have a medically diagnosed, gluten related condition, gluten-free products lack vital nutrients. For example, gluten-free spaghetti and pancake mix have less fiber and protein, but more sugar and sodium than the original products (Kluger, 2014). Additionally, the increasing availability of gluten-free foods gives consumers the impression that just because something is gluten-free, it is healthy. As Kluger puts it: “The gluten-free fad has actually undermined people’s health because now there are gluten-free varieties of all that junk food. Whether your doughnut is gluten-free or not, it’s still a doughnut” (2014). “Gluten-free” has joined the ranks of other buzzwords such as “all natural” and “organic” that imply a food is healthy and nutritious, but is not always the case.

Bias in Media

Dr. Davis, who profits off of his gluten-free brand, is one example of how the gluten-free industry is run by supporters biased towards a gluten-free lifestyle. Bias in media occurs when a journalist “slant[s] the news in favor of a political or ideological perspective, or covertly push an agenda” (Plaisance, 2013). Whether a journalist is acting ethically or not is often based on the presence of a bias influencing the contents of a story (Plaisance, 2013). In the case of gluten-free bloggers, a bias among the writers becomes apparent. Results of a Google search of the top gluten-free blogs revealed that many websites have a common factor: most bloggers had either an autoimmune disorder or wheat related disease (Table 1). However, out of the top five bloggers with the most combined Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest followers, only one has celiac disease. The other four most followed bloggers have, respectively: eating disorder, adrenal burnout, carrier (but not diagnosed) for celiac, and a family member with celiac. These results make it clear that although many gluten-free bloggers have a medical reason for going gluten-free, the most followed ones do not have a gluten related illness themselves.

The main dilemma is that although the majority of gluten-free bloggers on the internet have celiac disease or a confirmed wheat allergy, making it necessary for them to completely cut gluten out of their diet, the most followed bloggers do not. On the one hand, those with celiac disease or a wheat allergy benefit from these sites to find products and advice for easily adapting to a gluten-free life. The more popular blogs however, are run by people who do not have a confirmed gluten related diagnosis. For the small portion of the US population that must be gluten-free, no matter who the author is, these websites are helpful in forming a community of similar citizens to foster support and guidance on how to live with their strict dietary requirements. However, someone who decides to go gluten-free because they have been misled to believe they will lose weight or obtain better health would have to put work into investigating and finding out the reason the blogger is gluten-free. The unsuspecting reader might thus be tricked into buying expensive products promoted by the blogger.

Table 1. Content Analysis of Gluten-free Blogs

Followers
Blog name Disease Advertisements on Page Facebook Twitter Pinterest Total
Oh She Glows recovered eating disorder cook book 282,626 68,500 1,166,000 1,517,126
Elana’s Pantry celiac cook book 252,984 261,000 328,000 841,984
Whole New Mom adrenal burnout Promotes products 77,672 117,000 441,000 635,672
Gluten-free Goddess carrier for celiac gene promotes GF baking products on Amazon 122,151 3,358 507,000 632,509
Gluten-free on a shoestring none, but son has celiac books 422,160 3,522 28,000 453,682
Gluten-free Girl celiac books 114,883 198,000 0 312,883
Wuthering Bites unknown none 3,743 303,000 657 307,400
My Darling Lemon Thyme self reported gluten intolerance cook book 17,139 2,626 249,000 268,765
Cannelle et vanille Meniere’s Disease cook book, classes 0 25.4K 151,000 151,000
Gluten-free Mom child has celiac promotes products 10,144 1,614 86,000 97,758
CAFÉ by Jackie Ormann celiac contributor to other websites/magazines 4,270 1,205 32,000 37,475
Art of gluten-free baking confirmed wheat allergy cook books, classes 5,376 7,081 432 12,889
Gluten-free Doctor self reported gluten intolerance classes 371 8,318 7.6K 8,689
Gluten-free for Good celiac book 5,731 2,407 0 8,138
Poor and Gluten-free Oral Allergy Syndrome, self reported gluten intolerance cook books, product reviews 1,396 646 3,000 5,042
Sondi Bruhner Crohns cookbooks, consultations 748 1,216 410 2,374
Baking Backwards unknown Book 328 159 129 616

 

Credibility Principles and Gluten-free Bloggers

Bloggers with wheat related medical conditions, but no credibility to make diet recommendations, are playing a role in amplifying the risks of consuming gluten and using their websites as platforms to sell personal products. Their biases are affecting their credibility as writers, journalists, and media creators. This has potential negative ramifications because credibility is the key to establishing trust with readers and reducing harm to the public (Plaisance, 2013).

Many newspapers and journals have a code of credibility principles because “serious communicators are concerned about being perceived as credible sources of information” (Plaisance, 2013). Bloggers, even independent ones, are still communicators. If they want people to pay attention to their message, establishing credibility is important. Credibility is a building block of professionalism (Plaisance, 2013). Journalists protect their credibility by having “an unflinching commitment to the pursuit of the truth, even when that pursuit becomes unpopular, and a scrupulous avoidance of sensationalism and conflicts of interest” (Plaisance, 2013).

Bloggers are journalists in that they write and publish articles that are intended to be viewed by others. Thus, they should also be committed to communicating the truth and avoid biases. The fact that most gluten-free bloggers are gluten-free for medical reasons that are not applicable to the general public, and the top bloggers do not have a gluten-related condition, undermines their credibility and proves their conflicts of interest.

According to Plaisance, there are five key principles that are embraced by all media groups. Three of these principles that relate to gluten-free bloggers are: responsibility to society; decency, honesty and truth; and avoidance of deception and misrepresentation (Plaisance, 2013). Applying these principles to bloggers, their acts of self-publication on the Internet come with an implicit responsibility to their followers. The information that they post is not contained within a vacuum, but has the potential to reach and influence a wide audience.

Secondly, as media producers, bloggers must be honest and truthful to their readers. Failing to acknowledge that their diet and lifestyle is not only not beneficial to the majority of the population, but also potentially harmful, is in contrast to this principle. Bloggers who are gluten-free for non-medical reasons are not truthful in that they ignore the science discounting gluten intolerance and the alleged “benefits” of a gluten-free diet. This leads into the last principle, which is avoiding deception and misrepresentation. The gluten-free food industry is aimed at making money rather than seeking to improve public health. Gluten-free bloggers play a role in this deception by promoting their own products and not being transparent about the reasons why few people require a gluten-free diet while others should avoid it.

Ethical theory considerations

In addition to failing to follow Plaisance’s credibility principles, these gluten-free bloggers are acting unethically as journalists.

Looking at the actions of these bloggers from a virtue ethic perspective, gluten-free bloggers are not demonstrating responsible journalism practices. Virtue ethics is based on the principle that our behaviors should help people flourish (Culver, 2015). While it is true that gluten-free blogs would indeed help people with autoimmune diseases or wheat allergies flourish, the lack of transparency counters the good one might argue they are achieving. Since most people do not benefit from a gluten-free diet, these blogs are not helping the population as a whole benefit.

Gluten-free bloggers further fail to act ethically from a deontological perspective. Deontological ethics looks at what our duties are, and how well we are adhering to our duties determines whether our actions are ethical (Culver, 2015). In this case, bloggers have a duty to be transparent and tell the truth. Because most bloggers either do not disclose that going gluten-free is not healthy for everyone and that non-celiac or wheat allergic bloggers ignore the science of gluten intolerance, they are not adhering to their duties as ethical journalists.

Lastly, gluten-free bloggers to do not act ethically from a consequential framework. Consequential ethics looks at the outcomes of an action (Culver, 2015). The outcomes determine whether an action is ethical or not (Culver, 2015). Possible ramifications of gluten-free blogs are the promotion of a lifestyle that deprives people of nutrients and confers no benefits if you do not have a rare and serious allergy. Gluten-free bloggers are either using their own harrowing medical emergencies to push a lifestyle that works for them but not everyone else, or have joined the gluten-free bandwagon while ignored peer reviewed science. Overall, It is clear from analyzing gluten-free bloggers using these three theories that they are not acting as ethical journalists.

First Amendment Considerations

In 2014, the case of Obsidian Finance Group v. Crystal Cox resulted in a ruling that bloggers have the same First Amendment rights as journalists (Meyer, 2014). Couldn’t one argue then that because bloggers have the freedom of the press that they should be allowed to write about whatever they want?

Two theories of the First Amendment would argue that criticizing gluten-free bloggers for lack of transparency is not a valid argument because freedom of speech gives them the right to full control over the content of their blogs.

The first theory, The Marketplace of Ideas, argues that everyone should be able to voice their own opinions (Culver, 2015). The assumption is that with everyone’s ideas being out in the open, the truth will eventually emerge. A person who supports this theory would agree that with all the gluten-free blogs, the truth that gluten-free living isn’t for everyone and will eventually come to light, and health effects of a gluten-free diet will organically become apparent.

The second theory, absolutist theory, states that we shouldn’t restrain free speech for any reason (Culver, 2015). The potential harm caused by gluten-free blogs is irrelevant. Free speech is free speech. They would thus argue that gluten-free bloggers have a right to show as little transparency as they want because their blogs are protected by the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech is an important aspect of the US constitution and should not limit the topics and contents of blogs. To counter refutes utilizing the First Amendment: this is not a legal issue, but an ethical dilemma. Though anyone with a computer and Internet access can create a blog and write about anything they would like, as a journalist they have ethical obligations towards their readers that they should consider before posting articles that lack honesty and transparency.

Transparency

Blogging is a form of online conversation, and communication is crucial for obtaining information, participating in discussions, and sharing ideas. A key component of effective correspondence is trust. Without trust, communication fails to unite people in mutual understanding and cooperation. According to Plaisance (2013), the key to honest exchange is transparency. Transparency, he states, is about what we say and why we say it (Plaisnace, 2013). The term implies that communication necessitates respect for the audience. Someone who wants to be an ethical reporter must have respect for who is receiving the message and therefore disclose their motivations and intentions behind their statements. With the rise of technology as a tool for information transmission, it has become a challenge to trust the messages we receive from the media because bloggers are not held accountable to the strict ethics and regulations of traditional journalists (Plaisance, 2013). Thus it is especially important for bloggers to be transparent to prove respect for their followers and establish trust. If bloggers aren’t perceived as trustful sources of information, their credibility as journalists is tainted. Additionally, this could affect the blogging world as a whole. Losing trust in bloggers, people might not want to read blogs, engage in meaningful conversations online, and seek out information in a private, accessible manner.

Conclusion

Blogging is a new field of journalism that has the potential to influence people’s perceptions of risk and health. Because of the influence they have on society, bloggers should be held to the same ethical standards as any other journalist.  Not doing so, how can we trust any blogger to tell the truth, be transparent, and avoid causing harm? Although bloggers have a right to free expression and speech, they have an ethical responsibility towards their readers.  If bloggers are to be considered journalists, they need to adhere to ethical practices to establish credibility, trust, avoid bias, and reduce harm.

As journalists, it is the ethical responsibility of these bloggers to disclose why they are gluten-free, whether it be that they have a condition that requires them to be gluten-free, or that they are doing so for dietary reasons. The top bloggers going gluten-free for non-medical reasons should be clear that the science behind going gluten-free and gluten intolerance is murky and inconclusive. By adhering to these ethical standards, they will avoid spreading the harmful pseudoscience behind gluten intolerance and the gluten-free fad diet. Given that around 23% of Internet time is spent on blogs/social networks (Kessler, 2011), bloggers, with their influence on media users, have the ethical to duty to confirm that their messages are clear and unbiased. Recent cases have demonstrated the dire costs of pseudoscience, including the 59 people who caught measles in California (Salzberg, 2015) as a result of the anti-vaccine movement. This is one of many cases that serve as a dire warning of the hazardous impact pseudoscience can have on society. Bloggers have the power and potential to influence public opinion and provide a platform for credible, transparent exchange that can be trusted. It is the bloggers’ responsibility and duty as journalists to rise to the occasion.

Appendix A

Trust in social media by age range

age-health-trust-share-engage-social-media

 

source: http://searchenginewatch.com/sew/news/2169462/-consumers-social-media-health-care-info-survey#

        (Miller, 2012)

 

References

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Celiac Disease Foundation. (2015). What is celiac disease? Retrieved from: https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/what-is-celiac-disease/

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Sanghavi, D. (2013, February 26). Why Do So Many People Think They Need Gluten-Free Foods? Slate. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2013/02/gluten_free_diet_distinguishing_celiac_disease_wheat_allergy_and_gluten.html

 

Shute, N. (2013). Gluten goodbye: One-third of Americans say they’re trying to shun it. National Public Radio. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/03/09/173840841/gluten-goodbye-one-third-of-americans-say-theyre-trying-to-shun-it

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