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Gluten-Free: Not a Fad But a Necessity for 18 Million Americans

Although it may seem as though gluten-free is a fad in a society obsessed with new diets, the reality is that for those who suffer from gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, this is not a choice, but a necessity.
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Gluten-free products seem to be everywhere -- from pasta and cookies to bread and even ice cream. Major food retailers such as WalMart, Whole Foods, Wegman's and Target carry a number of gluten-free products, and PF Chang's, Outback, Chili's and other chain restaurants have added several gluten-free menu items.

Although it may seem as though gluten-free is a fad in a society obsessed with new diets, the reality is that for those who suffer from gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, this is not a choice, but a necessity. In fact, experts estimate that 1 in 16 Americans have some form of gluten sensitivity.

So what is gluten and why is it such a big deal for nearly 18 million Americans? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that is responsible for the elastic nature of dough. For many individuals this protein is easily digestible and has no effect on their overall health. But for those with any type of gluten sensitivity or intolerance, the ramifications of consuming gluten can range from constipation and bloating to diarrhea and malabsorption, which can result in malnutrition and severe weight loss. While there is a diagnostic test for celiac disease, there are no tests or a defined set of symptoms that identify gluten intolerances.

The increasing population of gluten-free eaters has not gone unnoticed by food manufacturers. Those that suffer from gluten intolerance have a much wider array of gluten-free foods to choose from today. The once small selection of gluten-free foods now makes up a $6.3 billion industry and growing.

The increasing availability of gluten-free foods is especially important to those that suffer from the most severe form of gluten intolerance, a condition called celiac disease. This autoimmune disease is a genetic disorder that affects 3 million Americans. Untreated, celiac disease can lead to a number of other health issues including malnutrition, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological disorders and other autoimmune diseases, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). Seventeen percent of family members of celiac patients also have celiac disease, making it one of the most commonly occurring lifelong, genetically determined diseases.

People with celiac disease suffer on average for nine years before they are correctly diagnosed.. For this group, a strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment. There are no pharmaceutical or surgical cures for celiac disease, so finding gluten-free foods are key to maintaining their health. This is why accurately labeling gluten-free food is crucial.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you or a loved one suffers from gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease:

  • Look for certification. Growing awareness about gluten intolerance has prompted manufacturers to step up their labeling practices and indicate products that contain gluten; however, without gluten labeling mandates from the FDA this practice is inconsistent across products and manufacturers. As a consumer, it's important to look for the certified gluten-free seal issued by Quality Assurance International (QAI), and the healthcare nonprofit National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). This seal ensures consumers that the food was produced in a facility without gluten and that it has gone through a supply chain free of gluten. Similar to the certification for organic and kosher foods, gluten-free certification is now much more commonplace.
  • Be aware. Some things that contain gluten are obvious, such as wheat pasta or bread. But gluten is also found in foods that aren't as apparent, such as soy sauce, beer, some salad dressings and gelatin. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to list the eight most common ingredients that trigger food allergies on labels: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Gluten is not included on that list because technically it's not an allergen, but there are efforts being made now to change this in the near future. In the meantime though, it's still necessary to be hyper vigilant about reading labels. If you see ingredients including wheat, rye and barley or ingredients made from these grains such as malt (made from barley), then it means there is gluten in the product.
  • Keep it fresh. Talk to any dietician and you'll hear that the best way to shop in the supermarket is to stick to the outer aisles, the thinking being that everything in that location -- fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, etc -- is not processed, and therefore less likely to contain gluten. Certainly there are some processed foods, such as some cookies and potato chips, that are gluten-free and therefore safe, but as a rule the more processed it is, the more likely it is to contain gluten.

Living with gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease isn't easy, but it's manageable. It requires a complete change in diet that lasts a lifetime. It doesn't have to mean a life without flavorful and exciting foods. By knowing what to look for -- in the supermarket or on restaurant menus -- eating a gluten-free diet is accessible and can be a pain-free and healthful transition.