Gluten-Free: The Low-Carb of This Decade?

PHOTO: Maria Monteverde-Jackson and her family in this undated file photo, eat a gluten-free diet.
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"Gluten-free" is fast becoming the "low-carb" diet trend of the 21st century, although only 10 percent of the people buying its foods suffer from the celiac disease, wheat allergy or "gluten sensitivity" that make gluten avoidance a medical-must.

The burgeoning gluten-free marketplace has been a boon to men and women whose good health depends upon keeping gluten out of their gullets.

Today, gluten-free staples, frozen meals and snacks fill aisles of supermarkets that years ago might have stocked only a paltry collection of cardboard-y rice crackers and wheat-free cookies.

At Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, baseball fans can wash down hot dogs on gluten-free buns with gluten-free beer.

Some churches provide gluten-free or very-low-gluten altar bread on communion trays, further attesting to the mainstreaming of gluten-free eating.

Last year, Americans spent $2.64 billion on foods and beverages without gluten, up from $210 million in 2001, according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based market research firm. The number of food and beverage packages with gluten-free package claims or tags rose from fewer than 1,000 at the end of 2006 to 2,600 by 2010.

The target market for sufferers of three types of gluten-related disorders is significant.

An estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease, a life-threatening immune disorder triggered by the consumption of a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Celiac disease is considered genetic, but can strike at any time of life when genetic and environmental influences intersect. Only about 200,000 Americans have been diagnosed.

Another 300,000 to 600,000 Americans have wheat allergies, which could kill them if they inadvertently ingested wheat products that swell their airways shut.

The biggest of these potential pools lies with those plagued by an emerging, but not fully delineated "gluten sensitivity" which Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, in a study published in March, estimated could be as many as 20 million people.

Among that group is Maria Monteverde-Jackson, 40, of Arlington, Va. Only six weeks ago, she gave up gluten after becoming increasingly frustrated by doctors' inability to pinpoint the source of the stomach pain, tingling in her hands, headaches, brain fog and "a general unwell feeling" she'd had since December. Because she had a 3-year-old niece with celiac disease, she considered the possibility that celiac might be "somewhere in our DNA" and underwent blood tests and biopsies of her small intestine, which all proved negative for celiac.

After that, she said, "I felt like I needed to take control and do something to see if I couldn't make myself feel better."

She had a consultation with Fasano and was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. When she stopped eating gluten, she said, "the mental fogginess and the headaches went away pretty quickly," which she described as "a great relief." The stomach pain has eased, too.

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