The gluten-free movement is full of twists, turns, and improbabilities. Those of us who remember the rise and fall of the fat-free or carb-free diets are quick to diagnose a fad. Gluten-free appears different, perhaps because media – including social avenues – portrays avoidance of gluten as generally healthy for everyone.
Historically, gluten’s impact was minimal, affecting only those who suffer from Celiac Disease – an autoimmune disorder. This population must avoid any products made with wheat, rye, or barley. Food that contains gluten triggers an immune response in these individuals that attacks the intestinal lining. Beyond inflammation, the villi of the intestine can be damaged, ultimately leading to an inability to absorb nutrients. Advanced cases lead to malnourishment, no matter how much food is consumed.
Gluten sensitivity, as described by the Celiac Disease Foundation, has symptoms similar to those of celiac disease when gluten is eliminated from the diet.
“Since there is currently no blood test for gluten sensitivity, the only way to be diagnosed is to undergo the screening and diagnostic tests required to confirm celiac disease,” their website says.
“A diagnosis of gluten sensitivity is confirmed when you are not diagnosed with celiac disease or wheat allergy, and your symptoms diminish after starting a gluten-free diet, followed by a return of symptoms when gluten is reintroduced into your diet.”
Celiac disease Foundation has 300 known symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal issues (abdominal pain, colitis, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea) to mood and mental state (anxiety and apathy). Itchy skin rash, canker sores, and dermatomyositis are associated. Even conditions associated with aging are linked, including arthritis, osteoporosis, cataracts, loss of smell, night blindness, dementia and thin hair. Other common symptoms include depression, fatigue, brittle nails, irritability, and obesity. The crux is that many people suffer from some of the conditions said to be relieved by eliminating gluten.
Worldwide, celiac disease affects one percent of the population. The United States National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says as many as one in 141 Americans has celiac disease, though most remain undiagnosed.
Through self-diagnosis or trend following, people worldwide are choosing gluten-free foods. Whether the trend is sticking around or not, globally, thousands of new bakery products bearing the gluten-free claim were introduced in the last four years. Consistently, the US, UK and Italy are the top countries represented. Having the option of gluten-free items appears to be increasingly important to meet demand.