Peanuts, dairy, carbs. There seems to be no end to the parade of food public enemies, the dietary components that have been popularly shunned in the name of allergy, intolerance and general well-being. The latest ingredient non grata is gluten, the protein found in bread and other foods. A decade ago no one seemed to have a problem with it, now there are gluten-free bakeries in many cities, restaurants provide a GF icon for gluten-free options, and supermarket shelves­ are lined with gluten-free products. Celebrities tout their gluten-free diets and support groups help people deal with celiac disease, the digestive condition caused by eating gluten. (For the lowdown on gluten, read what is gluten?)

 

But the question that begs to be answered is this: Does the increase in people eating gluten-free foods suggest a celiac disease epidemic or is the turn to gluten-free pastas and crackers merely another food fad?

 

A new study from the Mayo Clinic reveals that it may be both. 

 

For the study, Dr. Joseph Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., took an interesting approach. He and his team examined blood samples taken in the 1950s and compared them with current samples, and found that it wasn't just more accurate diagnosis pushing up the numbers. Celiac disease is increasing. The findings confirm that about 1 percent of U.S. adults have it today as compared to 50 years ago, making it four times more common now.

 

The study reports that about 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, but about 1.4 million people with the condition may not be aware they even have it. Meanwhile, about 1.6 million people in the U.S. eat a gluten-free diet even though they haven't been diagnosed with celiac disease.

 

Picky eaters and food fads aside, the research clearly suggests that more people really are getting sick from eating gluten.

 

Some scientists think that the uptick is due to more processed wheat products with a higher gluten content, like pasta and baked goods.

 

Murray noted that it could also be from a change in wheat itself. It was in the 1950s that scientists started cross-breeding wheat to create more durable and commercially viable plants. The timing of the new wheat varieties and beginning of more common gluten problems coincides neatly.

 

According to market research, Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion this year on products with a gluten-free label. Yet even though celiac rates are rising, it’s thought that possibly more than half of consumers buying gluten-free products have no reaction to the protein and are purchasing the items because they believe the products will help them lose weight, make them feel better, or because they wrongly think that they have a gluten problem.

 

That said, for the rising ranks of those affected by celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, let’s hope the faddists help keep the gluten-free products coming.

 

The study is published in the July 31 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

 

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