Gluten-free products are flying off grocery shelves, and restaurants are boasting of meals with no gluten. Celebrities on TV talk shows chat about the digestive discomfort they blame on the wheat protein they now shun. Some churches even offer gluten-free Communion wafers.
Faddishness is a big part of it. Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion this year on foods labeled gluten-free, according to the market research firm Mintel. But the best estimates are that more than half the consumers buying these products don’t have any clear-cut reaction to gluten. They buy gluten-free because they think it will help them lose weight or because they mistakenly believe they are sensitive to gluten.
“We have a lot of self-diagnosing going on out there,” said Melissa Abbott, who tracks the gluten-free market for the Hartman Group, a Seattle-area market research organization.
Fads aside, research suggests more people are truly getting sick from the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley, but the reasons aren’t clear.
In the most serious cases, gluten triggers celiac disease. The condition causes abdominal pain, bloating and intermittent diarrhea. Those with the ailment don’t absorb nutrients well and can suffer weight loss, fatigue, rashes and other problems.
It was once considered extremely rare in the U.S. But about 20 years ago, a few scientists began exploring why celiac disease was less common here than in Europe and other countries. They concluded that it wasn’t less common here; it was just under-diagnosed.
More recently, a research team led by the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Joseph Murray compared blood samples taken from Americans in the 1950s with samples taken from people today and determined celiac disease actually was increasing. About 1 percent of U.S. adults have it today, making it four times more common now than it was 50 years ago, Murray and his colleagues reported Tuesday in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. That translates to nearly 2 million Americans with celiac disease.
Doctors also recently developed a definition for what is called “gluten sensitivity.” It’s a label for people who suffer bloating and other celiac symptoms and seem to be helped by avoiding gluten, but don’t actually have celiac disease.
What is hotly debated is how many people have the problem, said Dr. Sheila Crowe, a San Diego-based physician on the board of the American Gastroenterological Association. It’s impossible to know “because the definition is nebulous,” she said.
Whatever the number, marketing of foods without gluten has exploded. Those with celiac disease, of course, are grateful. Until only a few years ago, it was difficult to find grocery and dining options.
At one of Atlanta’s largest and busiest health food stores, Return to Eden, manager Troy DeGroff said over a third of his customers come in for gluten-free products for themselves or their family.
It’s hard to say how many of his customers have a medical reason for skipping gluten. But “they’re at least paying attention to what they’re sticking in their mouth,” he said.
The Associated Press
PROCESSED WHEAT: Scientists suggest that there may be more celiac disease today because people eat more processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods than in decades past, and those items use types of wheat that have a higher gluten content.
CROSS-BREEDING: In the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make hardier, shorter and better-growing plants. It was the basis of the Green Revolution that boosted wheat harvests worldwide. But the gluten in wheat may have somehow become even more troublesome for many people, scientists say.
The Associated Press