Team: Shaz Bhola, Daria McCall, Maria Sanoja, and Yasemin Uyar 
Advisors: Dr. Tom Guariello, Veta Bates and Saloni Soni
Gluten, a naturally occurring protein found in wheat and other grains, has become the latest culprit in a decades-long line of villainized ingredients. Gluten is only proven to be harmful for Celiac Disease patients (1% of the US population), yet a growing percentage of Americans (30%) currently follow or have attempted the gluten-free diet. Despite being a major part of the human diet for over 10,000 years, what has led to the vilification of gluten over the last decade?

Only 1% of the US population suffers from Celiac disease, however, in 2015, the Gluten-Free Diet was the most popular diet in the US.

Society has villainized and subsequently attempted to be “free” of a “harmful” ingredient—MSG, sugar, fat, and most recently, gluten—for over 50 years.
Media, marketing, and food packaging take advantage of our binary “good” and “bad” psychological model, reinforcing a culture of fear and shame that is passed from generation to generation. Over time, this has increased anxiety in our relationship with food, created confusion around the concept of health, and resulted in a tendency to treat our bodies as if they are defective.
Challenge
Our challenge is to combat the growing misconceptions and fallacies surrounding gluten. The lack of concrete research and testing to confirm non-celiac gluten sensitivity has led to misdiagnosis, self-diagnosis and most importantly, institutional distrust. The confirmation bias during self-diagnosis has driven people to overlook the possibility of a nocebo effect, a placebo-like psychological mechanism operating when individuals believe that eliminating an ingredient causes beneficial effects.
In a world where we are constantly looking to rid ourselves of what we believe is harmful, there is a growing desire to be “free” of what ingredients we’ve deemed unsafe, whether it is sugar-free, fat-free, or gluten-free. Another challenge will be to address this growing fear in individuals who have villainized gluten in their pursuit of a more healthy and cleansed lifestyle.
Insights
- Our audit proves that gluten is only the latest culprit within a cycle of food villainization that has occurred for over 60 years.
- Redeeming gluten in people’s minds would clear a path for a future villain.
Approach
We seek to expose and disrupt the food villain cycle to make consumers aware of the psychological and cultural implications of dietary extremes, thereby empowering them to make intuitive, well-informed food choices.
Our strategy is to shift the approach to eating from anxious to aware by breaking the food villainization cycle. We will accomplish this by confronting the psychological biases and behavior that damages our relationship with food and advocating for critical thinking as a means to moderation.

It is necessary to encourage and empower consumers to approach media confusion with active curiosity and critical thinking.

UNLABEL is a national movement that confronts our psychological biases and behavior. It provides a resource to retrain our minds and embrace moderation as a tool for critical thinking, and ultimately, empower people to trust their gut.

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