Two years ago, Melanie Montemurno finally went on a gluten-free diet after enduring stomach problems and acid reflux since she was a child.
The 29-year-old architect's assistant was never actually tested for a gluten allergy or diagnosed with associated celiac disease. But after complaining to her chiropractor, he suggested she immediately eliminate any products that contained gluten -- the protein in wheat, barley or rye flour.
"I thought I'd give it a try and I am feeling so much better," said Montemurno. "Initially, I found the transition difficult. I loved baked goods and enjoyed baking. But I have started finding new recipes."
Now, many of her friends are on gluten-free diets, part of a growing health trend that food companies and their marketing departments are starting to notice.
This week, junk food giant Frito-Lay is poised to roll out new labeling on a host of snacks, all of which will be promoted as "gluten-free:" Lay's, Doritos, Ruffles, Tostitos and Cheetos.
The company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, said in a news release from its corporate offices in Plano, Texas, that it has developed a validation program that meets Food and Drug Administration standards of 20 parts per million of gluten.
Even Montemurno recognizes it's a "marketing ploy."
"The majority of their junk food is gluten-free except for a few strange ones like Sun Chips and Pringles," she said.
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.
Sixty million gluten-free products are consumed in the U.S. each day, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
He said a growing number of people have a type of gluten intolerance called nonceliac gluten sensitivity, which isn't quite as serious as celiac disease but not to be taken lightly, either. Mounting evidence now suggests the number of people who have nonceliac gluten sensitivity may outnumber those who have full-blown celiac disease.
Celebrities like pop star Miley Cyrus have said they have taken on a gluten-free diet for their health.
"Gluten is crapppp anyway," she recently tweeted.
Those with sensitivities claim that gluten leaves them feeling tired, achy and bloated.
But Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Center at Columbia University in New York City, estimated close to 90 percent of dieters abandon gluten "as a food fad, or as a weight-reduction thing."
"On a weight-reduction diet, one typically avoids carbohydrates. And our main source of carbohydrates is wheat flour," he said, adding that breads and pasta are usually the first foods to go. "A weight-reduction diet is often a gluten-free diet."
But celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that destroys the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients from food, can be life-threatening.