Have you noticed a large increase in gluten-free products over the past five years? I see gluten-free pasta, gluten-free breads and cookies, even gluten-free pizza in the health food section of many grocery stores.
And throughout the grocery’s inside aisles, gluten-free cake mixes, gluten-free cereals, and numerous gluten-free snacks are scattered among the regular, gluten-containing products. These relative newcomers to the ranks of gluten-free products have added variety to the diet of those who cannot ingest gluten because it makes them ill.
These new choices must be a welcome change for gluten-sensitive folks, even though they have always been able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, and starches like corn, rice, and potatoes (as long as the cooking method does not add gluten). The gluten-free diet must also be free of any foods that contain hidden sources of gluten, like modified food starch or malt flavorings.
Who is buying gluten-free products?
People with celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue and gluten-sensitive enteropathy. A person with celiac disease has an autoimmune response to a particular protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and some varieties of oats. This response damages the lining of the intestines and leads to malabsorption of nutrients, and even malnourishment. Symptoms of celiac disease are often mistaken for other gastrointestinal problems and include gas, bloating, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, weight loss, and, in children, poor growth. If not treated, celiac disease may cause osteoporosis (from reduced absorption of calcium and vitamin D) or intestinal cancer. It is diagnosed by the presence of certain antibodies in the blood and confirmed with an intestinal biopsy. The only treatment is a lifelong commitment to avoiding gluten. One in 133 people in the United States has celiac disease. This includes 5 percent to 10 percent of people with type 1 diabetes, which of course is also an autoimmune condition.
People with wheat allergies are also trying the gluten-free products. People in this group have an allergic reaction that starts up a few minutes to several hours after they eat wheat. The reaction could be itching, hives, a rash, difficulty breathing, or all of the above. Foods marked “gluten-free” will always be wheat-free, but people with wheat allergies can eat rye, barley, and oats.
People interested in eating “healthy foods.” Because gluten-free products are often in the health food section, many people assume that they are healthier to eat than the many common products made with wheat. However, this is not necessarily true and no specific research studies have yet documented any health benefits of a gluten-free diet for people who do not have celiac disease. Just like their gluten-containing versions, gluten-free products are often made with sugar, fats, sodium, food coloring, and preservatives. And many gluten-free flours are in fact low in fiber and are not enriched with vitamins and iron like many wheat flours are. Even if you don’t have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, you can buy gluten-free products to add variety to your food choices—but don’t forget to count the carbs!
The number of gluten-free products on the market has increased with consumer demand, and so today putting up with celiac disease no longer means having no bread, no pizza, and no chicken nuggets to eat! More and better-tasting options are available. Just keep in mind that this diet is a necessity for some people but, if you do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, it will have no particular benefit for you.