Walk into any natural-foods store these days and you’re likely to find a special section stocked with gluten-free foods: pasta made from rice, teff-flour cookies, quinoa-and-amaranth crackers. Even major supermarkets now carry alternative goodies containing no wheat, barley or rye — and with the gluten-free products market growing at about 17 percent per year in the U.S., you’ll soon see many more such items. A rash of new books from major publishers — with titles like 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes (Wiley, fall 2008), Gluten Free, Quick and Easy (Avery, summer 2007) and even Living Gluten-Free for Dummies (For Dummies, 2006) — are slated for release or are in stores now. So what on earth is gluten? And why are people avoiding it?

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and rye — as well as several less-common related grains — that gives them the ability to stick together and form doughs and batters. Recent research indicates that at least one in 133 people has celiac disease, a genetic condition that makes them unable to digest gluten. For celiac patients, eating foods with gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine, leading to digestive discomfort, inflammation and malabsorption of nutrients — which in turn can trigger other health problems, such as osteoporosis, skin rashes and infertility.

Doctors speculate that there are even more undiagnosed celiacs out there, and that others may be sensitive to gluten without having full-fledged celiac disease. “Some people just feel better when they don’t eat gluten, and that may mean that they don’t digest it very well,” says Joseph Murray, a doctor and celiac disease researcher. Symptoms of gluten intolerance are similar to but less severe than celiac symptoms and can include digestive discomfort and inflammation.

One reason that gluten intolerance is on the rise may be growing dietary concerns among the public. “The medical community is slowly becoming more aware of the problem, but that pales in comparison to the public’s awareness of how food affects us,” says Stephen Wangen, a naturopathic doctor based in Seattle. Recent fads like low-carb and raw-food diets require people to cut out wheat and other grain products; some experts think these diets may have led some people to realize they felt better when they avoided gluten. The market for gluten-free goods is expanding among non-celiac sufferers, too, as a growing number of people remove gluten from their diets even without a diagnosis.

Developing gluten-free crackers, cookies and other products involves much trial and error. Specialty flours made from gluten-free foods like rice and corn, or “heritage” grains like sorghum and quinoa, must be coaxed into forming dough, which rarely bakes with the same texture as wheat flour. So a binding agent, like xanthan or guar gum, is added to give gluten-free baked goods the same elasticity and feel as those that contain gluten. The catch is that every single ingredient has to be processed in a gluten-free facility to be considered uncontaminated, because even a trace of wheat, barley or rye can trigger a reaction in gluten-sensitive people.

Many of today’s big names in alternative-grain goodies are (or began as) small, independent companies whose owners often had personal reasons for launching their product lines. “When I went to parties with tables full of cheeses and dips, there wasn’t a cracker or bread stick I could eat,” writes Mary Waldner, co-founder of the company Mary’s Gone Crackers. Another manufacturer, Gluten-Free Pantry, was founded in 1993 by celiac sufferer Beth Hillson, who was dissatisfied with the gluten-free baked goods on the market. Carol Fenster, a cookbook author whose titles include the forthcoming 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes and Gluten Free, Quick and Easy, says she used to know all the company founders “on a first-name basis,” but that’s changing — Gluten-Free Pantry, for instance, was recently bought by the Canadian company Glutino, one of the world’s largest gluten-free food manufacturers.

Whether suffering from celiac disease or not, the gluten-free community feels very strongly about its cause. Many people report feeling more energetic and alert when they don’t eat gluten — perhaps in part because eliminating wheat and related grains means cutting out many high-glycemic foods, such as packaged snacks and fast foods. Danna Korn, the author of Living Gluten-Free for Dummies, argues that everyone could benefit from giving up wheat and its relatives. “My son has celiac disease, but I’m not gluten-intolerant; still, I wouldn’t touch gluten if you paid me — not after the research I’ve done,” she says. “Our systems were not designed to handle gluten.” That may be an extreme view, but it seems to be catching on. “There are a lot of people who avoid wheat simply because of the health benefits,” says Joseph Pace, the chef and owner of Risotteria in New York City, a celiac-friendly restaurant that also sells a line of prepared gluten-free foods.

Despite the rising popularity of the gluten-free diet, most doctors say it isn’t for everyone. For one thing, it can be hard to obtain adequate amounts of certain nutrients — like fiber and B vitamins — without wheat and its cousins (in their whole-grain form, at least). Moreover, it’s hard to truly stick to the diet, and it’s expensive to buy gluten-free items, which often fetch a premium of more than 300 percent.

And let’s face it: Eating processed foods — be they gluten-free cookies or vegan ice-cream sandwiches — isn’t as healthy as sticking to whole, unrefined fare. So while gluten-free goodies won’t solve the nation’s obesity or diabetes problems, they may be a crucial step toward better health for many people — maybe even you.

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.

See also:

What is gluten?

Gluten-free beer

Beyond bread
Why are gluten-free products crowding supermarket shelves?