Bisquick, Chex cereal, Van’s waffles, pancakes and French toast sticks, Betty Crocker baking mixes all make gluten-free products. The grocery store aisles are teeming with gluten-free products as the American public has glommed onto a dietary trend. That trend, according to market research firm Packaging Facts, has resulted in a $4.2 billion market and is expected to exceed $6.6 billion by 2017.
Gluten free has replaced the low-carb and low-fat fads of years past as the weight-loss diet du jour, while others maintain it is the panacea for what ails them.
“There’s a giant market that’s been generated by this whole craze,” said Dr. James Wolosin, staff gastroenterologist and chair department of medical specialties at Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
But if you don’t have Celiac disease, a wheat allergy or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), avoiding gluten is of no value, experts say.
“Some individuals start eating gluten free to lose weight because they perceive it to be healthier,” said Dr. Sheila E. Crowe, director of research in the division of gastroenterology at UCSD. “It’s not necessarily healthier. It all depends what type of gluten-free food they’re eating.”
Gluten is the binding protein found in wheat. It’s also found in barley and rye. And while gluten is in bread, cake, crackers, cookies and muffins, etc., gluten- free shouldn’t automatically be equated with being low in carbohydrates. Some gluten-free pasta, for example, is actually higher in carbohydrates than regular pasta.
“Processed gluten-free foods can contain more sugar and fat than their gluten-containing counterpart too,” said Crowe. Additionally, when wheat is removed, fiber and nutrients are lost. “Wheat is a source of nutrition, including protein, carbohydrates and vitamins, especially B vitamins.”
Packaged Facts, a market researcher, said that nearly 20 percent of Americans are currently avoiding gluten, up from 15 percent in 2010. With it come higher costs.
“Gluten-free products are very expensive,” said Wolosin. A 2008 study from The Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research found the price of gluten-free foods to be 242 percent higher, on average, than their gluten-full counterparts.
Sherry Mombourquette Perez of Leesburg, Va., used to suffer from GI problems, including terrible pain, nausea and bloating after eating. She tested negative for Celiac. After visiting various specialists and undergoing many tests, she adopted a gluten-free lifestyle after discovering her GI problems were related to NCGS. There is no diagnostic test for NCGS. The condition is determined through an elimination diet and sometimes a food challenge.
While Mombourquette Perez’s symptoms have improved, her pocketbook is hurting. “My grocery bills have definitely risen since dealing with this,” she said. “And the restaurants also charge more, too.”
“Some people get better on a gluten-free diet even when we don’t have a diagnosable condition,” said Wolosin. “Gluten keeps bad company. When you eliminate gluten you eliminate a lot of other things from your diet, which may be also playing a role in digestive maladies and symptoms.”
Crowe is concerned with those who diagnose themselves with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. “They may be missing another cause for their symptoms, such as GERD, acid-peptic gastritis, other food intolerances, eosinophilic digestive conditions, functional GI disorders such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and even IBD (inflammatory bowel disease),” she said.
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