Judy Beckett, a retired educator, was diagnosed with celiac disease two years ago: Her gut cannot tolerate gluten, and switching to these foods has improved her digestion and quality of life. Claudia Lopez, a housekeeper and mother of four, is looking for gluten-free food for herself and her family. She recently switched to it at the urging of a health expert she heard on Spanish radio.
Beckett and Lopez have plenty of company as more and more consumers embrace the gluten-free trend. Users run the gamut: There are people like Beckett with celiac disease who must be on the diet; others who believe the diet can alleviate chronic intestinal complaints and boost energy; still others who believe the gluten-free diet may help in the treatment of autism and a host of other disorders, including schizophrenia, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, migraine and even fertility problems.
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And some people are trying the diet simply because they've heard it is healthful.
"A lot of people are going gluten-free . . . but they really don't know why," says Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a company that forecasts food trends. "It's just like, "Quick, it's gluten-free, it must be good!' "
A hit at food expo
It was full-speed ahead for gluten-free foods at this year's Natural Products Expo West, held in March at the Anaheim Convention Center. Attendees at the event -- truly the Super Bowl of natural food shows -- swarmed around counters featuring gluten-free breads, pasta, steaming pot pies, brownies, warm muffins, cosmetics and even dog treats.
(One exhibitor even advertised a flavored water as gluten-free -- cheerfully admitting that, yes, water is naturally gluten-free, but what the heck.)
According to a March 2007 survey by the market research company Mintel, 8% of the U.S. population look for gluten-free products when they shop. Nielsen Co., which tracks gluten-free food in U.S. grocery, drug and mass merchandiser stores (excluding Wal-Mart), reports that the gluten-free sector increased 20% in the 12-month period ending June 14, to $1.75 billion from $1.46 billion a year ago.
The variety of choices is also expanding. In 2007, 700 new gluten-free products were launched in the U.S., up from 214 in 2004, according to Mintel. Consumers of gluten-free products can wander down the aisles of their local health food store -- in some cases their local supermarket -- and choose from an array of gluten-free pastas, cake mixes, waffles, bagels, pizzas, cookies, baby food, even beer and cosmetics. Mintel projects a 15% to 25% annual growth rate for gluten-free foods over the next few years.
Gluten-free food manufacturers can thank growing awareness of celiac disease, also referred to as celiac sprue, for putting gluten on the map. People with celiac disease experience a severe immune reaction to gluten -- a set of proteins in wheat, rye and barley -- that interferes with the absorption of iron, folate, calcium and fat-soluble vitamins. The disease can cause serious gastrointestinal symptoms and weight loss and has also been linked to osteoporosis, anemia, Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid disease, says Shelley Case, a celiac researcher, registered dietitian and author of the book "Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide."
Even very small amounts of gluten can spark an inflammatory reaction in celiac patients, Case says.
Until recently, celiac disease was thought to be extremely rare in the U.S., says Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland. In 2003, there were 40,000 diagnosed cases. Then the center published an epidemiological study estimating that about 2.5 million people in the U.S. had the disease. Shortly thereafter, the National Institutes of Health boosted the estimate to 3 million, igniting a flurry of business investments in gluten-free foods.
Because of the severity of symptoms and difficulty of preparing gluten-free foods, after a child is diagnosed with celiac disease, parents will often put the entire family on the diet, further expanding the market.
Gluten's ubiquity makes it hard to eliminate entirely. Found in pasta, crackers, cereal, breads and other baked goods, gluten also lurks in less obvious places such as malt vinegar, soy sauce, breaded meats, many flavorings and emulsifiers, beer, gin, whiskey and rye, and gravy and sauces thickened with flour. Ten years ago, celiac patients struggled with meals and menu planning. When gluten-free foods began landing in stores, celiac patients snapped them up.
Parents of children with autism are also snapping them up. Diets that eliminate gluten and/or casein are the most common alternative treatments tried for children with so-called autistic spectrum disorders, says Dr. George Christison, a professor of psychiatry at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and parent of a child with autism.
"The medical literature to date contains no clinical trials of adequate size or design rigor to provide clear evidence to say either that these diets do work or . . . that they do not work," he says. But after sifting through the stories he's heard from parents, Christison thinks the diet may indeed be beneficial for a subgroup of children.
And in the absence of formal evidence, parents are forced to arrive at their own conclusions, and many opt to try the diet.
"No parent of a child on the autism spectrum wants to look back when the child is grown and say, 'If only we had tried . . .,' " Christison says.