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"Gluten-Free": Marketing Ploy or Serious Business?

Talk about a trending topic. Seems like every other item on our grocery shelves sports the term “gluten-free” nowadays, and we’re gobbling them up, digestive issues or not. Talk about a marketing goldmine. Just how big? It hit about $4.2 billion in 2012 and is estimated to bring in some $6.6 billion by 2017.

This though many of us aren’t even sure what gluten is, let alone celiac disease…

For starters, gluten is “the mixture of proteins, including gliadins and glutelins, found in wheat grains, which are not soluble in water and which give wheat dough its elastic texture.” In other words, it’s the stuff mostly found in wheat (rye, barley, and possibly oats, too) that gives dough its elastic texture. Think crackers, bread, pasta, and so on.

And that’s a big deal because those with celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune digestive disease, can’t digest gluten; it actually causes their bodies to produce antibodies that damage the tiny, hair-like projections, villi, in the small intestine. The classic result: diarrhea, bloating, and weight loss, but even more worrisome symptoms can also ensue, including:

  • Anemia (usually the result of iron deficiency)

  • Loss of bone density (osteoporosis) or a softening of the bones (osteomalacia)

  • An itchy, blistery skin rash

  • Damage to dental enamel

  • Headaches and fatigue

  • Nervous system injury, including numbness & tingling in the hands and feet, plus possible balance problems

  • Joint pain

  • Reduced functioning of the spleen (hyposplenism)

  • Acid reflux and heartburn

Interestingly enough, ten or 15 years ago, few of us had ever heard of celiac disease let alone suffered from it. Indeed, the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Joseph Murray recently compared blood samples taken from Americans in the 1950s with those of today and found that there are four times more cases today than there were some 60 years ago. That translates to some 3 million sufferers.

The question is why?

At first blush it would seem that advances in medicine have resulted in better diagnosis, but that’s only part of the picture. Another reason is that we’re now eating more processed wheat than in the past-and those foods contain higher gluten wheat.

Then there’s the cross-breeding of wheat that began in the 50s to make the grain hardier, stronger, shorter, too, and that may have exacerbated the situation by also causing “gluten sensitivity” among a number of people–not outright celiac disease, which afflicts about 1% of us, but still triggering such celiac symptoms as bloating and diarrhea. As for numbers, the University of Maryland’s Dr. Alession Fasano says it might be as high as 6% of the population.

Be forewarned, though. If you can tolerate gluten, you’d be ill-advised to go without. An uncalled-for gluten-free regimen is not a healthy one, though many seem to think it’s a dieter’s dream come true. Definitely not so. In fact, nutritionist Dana Angelo White says, “People without the disease put themselves unnecessarily at risk for nutrient deficiencies by banishing all gluten from their diets. Plus, sometimes food producers up the calories when reducing the amount of gluten.”

And that begs the question, when a box or bottle says “gluten-free,” what exactly does that mean? Free? How free? It’s been anybody’s guess, but we’ll all know better within a year. Enter the federal government. Actually, the FDA has been working on the problem since 2007, but finally, to carry the “gluten-free” label, products must contain “fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten.” That means, “less than two-hundredths of a gram of gluten per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the food.”

But fair warning: It’s not a perfect ruling, as explained by registered dietitian Tamara Duker Fleuman. For instance, she says, “Manufacturers using the gluten-free claim aren’t actually required to test their products to ensure they meet the standard.” Really.

Bottom line: Seek medical advice if concerned; a diagnosis can be made quite accurately with a blood test. Then go “gluten-free” only if you suffer from celiac or gluten sensitivity-certainly not for weight loss. For that, eat wisely and consider a consult with a registered dietitian who can design a customized program just for you.

Source by Carol Josel

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