Humans have been cultivating grains for more than 10,000 years, so why now are so many people going gluten-free?
It may look like just another food fad, but for those with gluten sensitivity, the latest supermarket offerings could make life a lot easier.
"Millions of people suffer everyday not knowing that what they are eating is making them sick," says Dr. Edward Conley. "Doctors are not aggressive enough in diagnosis because they still feel that everyone who is sensitive to gluten must have celiac disease, and that is not true."
Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, is a serious autoimmune disease in which a person can't tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Symptoms can be quite severe -- including intermittent diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss and malnutrition -- or so mild and nondescript as to be overlooked or misdiagnosed. Depression, anemia, muscle cramps, joint pain and skin rashes are all common.
Gluten sensitivities, by contrast, are less severe and characterized by bloating, abdominal discomfort and diarrhea -- and they're on the rise. In fact, it's almost five times more common today than it was 50 years ago, according to a 2009 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic. And most people affected don't even know they have it.
"This is a very serious health issue," Conley explains. "I have seen people who were told they were going to die from autoimmune disease and we were able to reduce the inflammation and damage by getting rid of gluten."
Gluten is most commonly associated with bread and pasta, but it also shows up in some very unlikely places. Lumped under monikers like "modified food starch" and "vegetable protein," gluten can be hiding in cold cuts, salad dressings, spice blends, spaghetti sauce, beer -- even chewing gum and pills.
Luckily, the FDA now requires food manufacturers to list common allergens, including wheat, on all labels -- and with the rise in gluten sensitivities, many companies are using a product's gluten-free status as a top selling point.
"Gluten-free products are beneficial only if you are gluten sensitive. The problem is that 95 percent of people who are gluten sensitive are never diagnosed because doctors don't think of it," Conley explains.
"In my practice, I have seen tremendous destruction of health from the fact that someone is gluten sensitive and never knew that what was causing their abdominal pain or autoimmune disease was due to what they were eating everyday," he says.
Not all gluten-free options are created equal, though.
"A naturally gluten-free grain like quinoa is an excellent choice for a healthy, balanced diet," says Cheryl McEvoy, director of communications for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
"Gluten-free cookies, on the other hand, may have the same or even more sugar, fat and sodium than their traditional wheat-based counterparts, so they're not healthier for those who don't have to avoid gluten," McEvoy says.
Even those without acute sensitivities are going gluten-free. Proponents claim that gluten-free diets significantly boost health and energy, aid in weight loss and help patients better cope with migraines, ADHD, autism and depression. Evidence also suggests that gluten can exacerbate chronic health problems like allergies, asthma, digestive disorders and autoimmune conditions.
"I frequently recommend gluten free diets to my patients. It is not necessary for everyone, but you would be surprised at how many people feel so much better when they get rid of the gluten," says Dr. Mary Ann Block, an osteopathic physician and medical director of The Block Center.
"While we have been making and using grains for 10,000 years, the results still yield a food that is not real. It must be altered, manufactured to be eaten. It is better and healthier to eat foods the way they come and eating a shaft of wheat just doesn't happen."
If you suspect you may have a gluten sensitivity, track your symptoms and speak with your doctor. They may advise a gluten-free diet. If your doctor suspects celiac disease, they will likely order a blood test to check for raised levels of specific antibodies that are produced in reaction to an allergen. However, these tests have varying degrees of reliability and may show false negatives, so an intestinal biopsy may be required.