Aug. 2, 2011— -- "Gluten-free" has become a popular, and profitable, label. But what does it mean?
The Food and Drug Administration may be getting closer to answering this question. On Wednesday, the FDA is expected to announce that it is resuming its finalization of a standard defining what foods are gluten-free. The standard would be that foods carrying a "gluten-free" label must have no more than 20 parts per million gluten. This mirrors Europe's standard.
Congress ordered the FDA to produce a standard seven years ago. A major reason was to protect people with celiac disease, a genetic disorder that causes an intolerance to gluten. The National Institutes of Health and Center for Disease Control estimate between 1.5 million and 3 million Americans suffer from this disease.
Grocery shelves are stacked with "gluten-free" food. Sales are approaching $3 billion per year. A few months ago, Kellogg's launched Rice Krispies Gluten Free. It's now one of the company's top sellers.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye barley and other grains, as well as many processed foods, soups, salad dressings and sauces.
Victoria Beckham, Rachel Weisz and Gwyneth Paltrow are among the celebrities who have publicly promoted gluten-free eating. Weight loss, better sleep and clearer skin are among the benefits proponents tout. Chelsea Clinton's wedding cake was baked with gluten-free flour.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck, one of the co-hosts of "The View," has written a book called "The G-Free Diet." She has celiac disease. A gluten-free diet is not restrictive, she said, adding that popular foods like pizza and pasta have gluten-free versions.
"I grew up in an Italian household -- pasta was at our table like another family member," she said.
She said she recommends it for everyone, even those without the disease. But many doctors say there's no scientific evidence supporting all the hype about gluten-free diets. Moreover, it can even be bad for you to cut out all gluten. Only those with celiac disease should do it, they say.
"A gluten-free diet is not entirely healthy," said Dr. Peter Green of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. "Often it lacks fiber, and the manufacturers of wheat flour fortify wheat flour with vitamins and minerals."