The report from New Nutrition Business entitled “Organic and All-Natural Kids Snacks and Baby Foods” claims that 15 to 25 percent of American parents seek gluten-free products, and the food industry has responded to the growing demand. The gluten-free market has grown at an average annual rate of 28 percent since 2004, according to market research organization Packaged Facts, despite estimates that less than one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten.
“The driver is a belief among people that they, or their children, may have a gluten sensitivity – even though they are not diagnosed as having an allergy,” said the report. “It’s an example of how ‘belief’ can be a more compelling reason to purchase than rational science.”
“Give parents a break”
But Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “It shouldn’t hurt them nutritionally. From a social standpoint their lives are miserable. But wheat’s not an essential nutrient…Give parents a break on this one. If their child feels better, behaves better, learns better, of course they will avoid it.”
Only 40,000 to 60,000 Americans are diagnosed as having celiac disease, although the federal government estimates that there could be as many as 3m who are undiagnosed. Part of the explanation is that currently the only way to get a conclusive diagnosis is through a series of blood tests followed by an intestinal biopsy, and Nestle pointed out that the discrepancy could also be explained by high health care costs.
“In the US it’s invasive and expensive, because we don’t have the health care system to pay for it,” she said. “So it’s easier to go on a gluten free diet.”
That is not to say that going on a gluten free diet is easy. Gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt, is ubiquitous in the western food network. The only treatment for celiac disease is total avoidance of gluten, which means not only avoiding wheat-containing foods like bread and pasta, but a host of other products including many sauces, soups, processed meats and seasoned snacks.
Although Nestle said that she could understand parents’ choice to remove gluten from their child’s diet, she added that there is a problem with the “wide range of symptoms” that parents are trying to treat by avoiding gluten.
A recent Harvard Health letter highlighted this phenomenon, saying: “For example, there’s a fairly loud internet ‘buzz’ about autistic children improving once they’re on a gluten-free diet. …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.”
Nestle said: “I’m a big proponent of the diagnostic tests. I say get the tests.”
Nevertheless, the gluten-free trend looks set to continue: Packaged Facts estimates that sales of gluten-free products will reach $2.6bn by 2012, up from $1.56bn last year and $580m in 2004.