Making Sense of the Gluten-Free Food Frenzy

As Americans hunger for ways to eat right, this trend is raising more questions than answers.

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[Overheard at dinner parties, buffet tables, and salad bars across America]

"Keen-what?"

"Keen-wah. I don't really know what it is either, but it's supposed to be healthy, and it's gluten-free. Here, try it."

"Oh, cool. My sister-in-law is gluten-free. I'm thinking maybe I should do that—you know, to help with my IBS."

For a substance largely unheard of until recent years, gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other products—seems to be on everyone's lips these days. And why wouldn't it be? A gluten-free diet has been touted as a cure for everything from obesity and rashes to autism and migraines. Gluten-free products now command their own keys on menus and sections in grocery stores. Previously exotic grains that lack gluten, like quinoa and amarinth, have become more mainstream. And manufacturers are promoting their gluten-free products. GlutenFreely.com, a "community and e-commerce site" owned by General Mills, provides tools for gluten-free living such as recipes and products, including its own Chex cereal, now in five gluten-free versions. Just last week, Frito-Lay entered the fray, announcing it would begin putting the gluten-free label on many of its already gluten-free products, including varieties of Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos, and Lay's.

[See The Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]

It's all relative, of course. Gluten-free Cheetos may be a safe bet for someone with a gluten allergy, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a dietician who would recommend that anyone opt for a packaged-food snack over a piece of fruit, regardless of his or her response to gluten. In other words, branding a product "gluten-free" does not necessarily confer on it a gold star of health. Meanwhile, as Americans hunger for ways to eat right and live well, the gluten-free frenzy has raised more questions than answers.

For starters, a gluten-free diet is recommended for people with adverse medical or clinical reactions to gluten. They include those with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten prompts antibodies to attack the small intestine. About 1 percent of the U.S. population has this disease, says Dr. Alessio Fasano, pediatric gastroenterologist and founder and director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. An even smaller group—between .01 and .03 percent of the population—has a wheat allergy, he says. But an estimated 6 percent of the country, or 16 to 18 million people, are considered “gluten sensitive,” a new category defined by Fasano and others in a paper published this year in the journal, BMC Medicine.

While tests can check for celiac disease and wheat allergies, there is no test yet to screen for gluten sensitivity, an inflammatory response with symptoms such as gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, joint pain, and depression. A matter of days on a gluten-free diet can help people make that determination. So if, for example, your terrible bloating and mad dashes to the bathroom after eating pizza subside on a gluten-free diet, then you may be onto something. Of course, it could also be the dairy destroying you, but that's for another article.

If it seems like the gluten-free craze has surfaced suddenly, that's because it has. "During the past 50 years we have witnessed an 'epidemic' of [celiac disease] and the surging of new gluten-related disorders, including the most recently described [gluten sensitivity]," according to the recent BMC Medicine article.

Why now? Put simply, food has evolved faster than we have. "Apparently the human organism is still largely vulnerable to the toxic effects of this protein complex, particularly due to a lack of adequate adaptation of the gastrointestinal and immunological responses," the article states.

Today's genetically-engineered wheat contains far more gluten than what our great-grandparents ate— in that time, the amount of gluten in wheat has climbed from 4 to 14 percent, Fasano says. Plus, it's used everywhere, as fillers and additives in everything from sausage to ice cream, he says. "You eat more gluten than you can imagine."