Insider Perspective / Columns

The Gluten-free Diet Boom

Nearly unheard of a decade ago, the gluten-free market has grown exponentially in recent years. According to the Packaged Facts report, “Gluten-Free Foods and Beverages in the U.S.,” this product group showed a 30% compound annual growth rate between 2006 and 2010, and the category is expected to balloon to more than $5 billion by 2015. These increases are a reflection of the development of new gluten-free products as well as the conversion of existing gluten-containing products to meet consumer demand.

Who is the gluten-free consumer?

The term gluten refers to the general name for specific proteins called prolamins found in wheat, rye and barley grains. A very diverse group of consumers follow a gluten-free diet (GFD). Individuals who must avoid gluten for proven medical necessity include those with celiac disease (CD) and gluten sensitivity (GS [see sidebar]). These two conditions affect approximately 7% of the U.S. population, which translates to 21 million Americans who need a GFD. It’s also not uncommon for other household members to follow the GFD because it’s easier than preparing a gluten-free option and gluten-containing items. But these figures only tell part of the story.

For another segment of the population, the GFD is a lifestyle choice. Hollywood stars, athletes and other celebrities are advocating the GFD for a variety of reasons, most of which are due to perceived benefits rather than scientifically supported ones. These include weight loss; improved athletic performance; a generic pursuit of “feeling better;” or as treatment for other health conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD, although currently, the science showing gluten affects any of these diseases is limited, at best). In fact, a Packaged Facts online survey reveals that the top motivation for buying gluten-free products is they are considered healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. This is ironic because many gluten-free products are made from refined gluten-free flours and starches such as white rice flour, potato, tapioca and corn starch which are lower in fiber, B vitamins, iron and other nutrients and are often higher in sugar, fat and calories.

 Because of the significant attention GFDs have garnered, it’s essential that the grains industry remain abreast of the scientific research surrounding the diet and clearly communicates it to consumers. I look forward to sharing this type of information with you in future columns, so that we can all do our part in providing accurate messages about the realities of a gluten-free diet. 


Celiac Disease

Affects 1% of the population, yet 90-95% remain undiagnosed

Prevalence of CD has quadrupled in the past 50 years

Can develop at any age

Inherited autoimmune disorder

Gluten damages the lining of the small intestine and other organ systems

A wide range of symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation or both, fatigue, bone/ joint pain, easy bruising, canker sores, migraine, depression, peripheral neuropathy, infertility in both women and men, recurrent miscarriages, irritability, dental enamel defects, skin rash (dermatitis Herpetiformis)

Complications of undiagnosed or untreated CD can lead to nutritional deficiencies such as anemia; osteoporosis; development of other autoimmune disorders; cancer of the gut

Diagnosed by celiac blood tests and small intestinal biopsy

Only treatment is a life-long strict GFD


Gluten Sensitivity

New research reveals that individuals can be sensitive to gluten and not have CD

Estimated to affect 6% of the population

Not an autoimmune condition, does not cause intestinal damage or other complications like in CD

Many symptoms similar to CD such as bloating, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, muscle cramps, leg numbness and bone/joint pain.

No specific diagnostic test; diagnosis made by ruling out CD

Treatment is a GFD

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