February 8, 2013

Gluten Free…Toys?

As a society, we are protecting our children more and more. Everything from junk food to peanut butter to play guns are being banned from classrooms and homes, all in an effort to protect the children.

The latest casualties in this war are products made from wheat. According to a report from Market Watch, more children are going gluten free and parents are insisting that school accommodate these dietary needs the way they have for other allergies. These parents aren’t stopping with lunchboxes, though; they want arts & crafts products to go gluten-free as well.

Hasbro’s Play Doh, and most other versions of modeling clay, has wheat as a key component. This put a giant target on one of the most popular products of childhood. Several companies have jumped into the fray with gluten-free versions of modeling clay, and sales are taking off.

“Sales of gluten-free playdough reached 50,000 containers last year at Soy-Yer Dough, 25 to 40 times the amount the company sold when it began five years ago. Another eco-friendly company, Great White Bottling, says sales of Gluten-Free Wonder Dough increased 67% in 2012, with the majority of orders coming from schools and day-care centers. (The company quickly discontinued its regular version of Wonder Dough because the wheat-free version was more popular.) And the Gluten Intolerance Group, which certifies products as gluten-free, approved its first crafts product: Max’s Mud, a gluten-free sculpting dough sold at Whole Foods and independent toy stores in the Pacific Northwest. There are also gluten-free versions of finger paint and stickers.”

It is no real surprise that companies have jumped in with these products. Market Watch reported that gluten-free sales surpassed $12 billion USD last year. Yes, you read that correctly; 12 billion dollars a year.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. If someone with Celiac Disease — an inherited autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive process of the small intestine — eats something containing gluten, their immune system responds by inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients. This can lead to other autoimmune disorders, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions and cancer, if left untreated. The Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago reports that 1 percent, or 3 million people, of Americans suffer from Celiac Disease.

Notice though, people with Celiac Disease have to ingest the gluten. Now, we all know children will eat modeling clay and other craft items, such as paper-mache, but they aren’t meant to be eaten. Children with gluten allergies report red eyes, rashes and other allergen-type reactions when just working with the clay.

The controversy comes in when you look at the numbers. Peanuts and peanut products are being banned at schools because peanut allergies are on the rise at astronomic levels. WebMD reports, “Peanut allergies in children have more than tripled in the United States from 1997 to 2008.” Parents who want schools to go gluten-free want the same kind of considerations – completely gluten-free school environments. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools are required to make accommodations for food allergies.

Not many children have Celiac Disease, or gluten allergies, though. And because craft products aren’t meant to be eaten, they don’t have to report their ingredients. Economics plays a big part as well. Gluten-free playdough is about five times more expensive than the original version, putting it out of reach for most school districts.

I believe in protecting children and providing a safe environment. My only question here is what is driving this “revolution” of gluten free toys; genuine concern for the children’s health or the lure of the $12 billion a year income?

Image Credit: Zoroyan / Shutterstock

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