Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder with symptoms triggered by gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. The only treatment currently available is to avoid gluten-containing foods and, as a result of increased diagnosis of the condition, combined with increased popularity of gluten-free diets for perceived health benefits, the market for gluten-free products has rocketed.
The Harvard Health Letter said that as food manufacturers have looked to profit from the trend, and learned to use xanthan and guar gums to replace gluten’s elasticity in gluten-free formulations, diets can end up lacking essential nutrients including fiber and B vitamins.
The problem is with increased palatability of gluten-free foods containing starch from rice, corn and potatoes – which contain relatively lower levels of fiber and nutrients – through the addition of gums. Powdery product consistency has been a common complaint regarding gluten-free foods and gums have helped to resolve the issue, but as people increasingly turn to products made with gluten substitutes, their diets could suffer, the letter said.
The concern was raised by Melinda Dennis, nutrition coordinator at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Celiac Center, who said that celiac patients should look to “unconventional but nutritionally well-rounded substitutes” for gluten-containing grains, like amaranth, buckwheat, teff, millet, quinoa and sorghum. She calls these the “super six” because of their high nutritional value.
Dennis added that another option for celiacs is to choose “celiac-friendly” cuisines, like Indian, Thai, Mexican and Ethiopian (which uses teff).
The letter split those choosing gluten-free diets into three camps.
Firstly, it said that gluten-free food is becoming more popular partly because of increased awareness and diagnosis of celiac disease. Then it mentions a “gray area” of those who do not have celiac disease but who “seem to be unable to digest gluten properly”. Regarding this group, the letter said: “It’s hard to know what’s going on. Some people may be getting caught up in a food fad. But many others probably do have a real problem digesting gluten or perhaps the sugars in some of these grains.”
Finally, it mentions a third group who blame gluten for a wide range of medical problems.
“For example, there’s a fairly loud internet ‘buzz’ about autistic children improving once they’re on a gluten-free diet,” it said. “…But based on what’s currently known, it’s a big leap to attributing autism and other problems to gluten, and an even bigger one to prescribing gluten-free eating as a treatment.”
Market research organization Packaged Facts clearly sees the trend toward gluten-free formulations as more than a fad, estimating that sales of gluten-free products will reach $2.6bn by 2012.
In a recent report, it said that the gluten-free market has grown at an average annual rate of 28 percent since 2004, when it was valued at $580m, to reach $1.56bn last year.
While only 40,000 to 60,000 Americans are diagnosed as celiac, the federal government estimates that there could be as many as 3m who are undiagnosed – or just under one percent of the population.