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The growing popularity of gluten-free food: Will it last?

Separate toasters and separate butter tubs. Those are just two things a family has to worry about when one of its members is diagnosed with gluten intolerance.

To avoid cross contamination and subsequent gluten poisoning, Allison Wilski of Astoria, Oregon, is vigilant in the kitchen. She makes sure all wheat-contaminated pans, dishes and utensils are scoured with hot water and plenty of soap before they’re put back in the cupboard. Surfaces are wiped thoroughly and repeatedly.

One mishap means hours of stomach and digestive trauma as Wilski’s body painfully reminds her that wheat is toxic to her digestive system.

Wilski is one of a growing number of Americans who are turning to a gluten-free diet for numerous reasons. For the small group of people who have adverse reactions to gluten, the diet is here to stay. And for the growing number of people who subscribe to the idea that gluten-free foods are simply a healthier choice, the diet may be just another food fad that will disappear with time.

For now, the food industry is making billions off the trend. But some experts call gluten free another diet fad that will eventually fade and stabilize to accommodate a small percentage of the population who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease.

"So many people are using it as a shortcut for a healthy diet. And they’re not even sure why. To me, that’s a sure sign of a fad," said Mark Lang, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University.

Market power of gluten-free

The food industry is adept at rolling out a new line of products in response to the latest food or health trend that seizes consumers, from fat free to sugar free.

“Ten years ago, it was low-carb, when the Atkins diet was the rage,” said Lang. “It had a big impact across grocery stores and food manufacturers.”

It’s the same for gluten free. Restaurants are redoing their menus to attract gluten-free customers, food manufacturers are creating new products, and retailers are redesigning their stores. Gluten free — once a niche industry catering to a small number of people with medical needs — has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.

In 2014, consumers will spend $8.8 billion on gluten-free products — an increase of 63 percent from 2012, reported the market research group, Mintel (pay wall). This is partly due to the increase in the number of people buying gluten-free products and partly due to the greater selection of goods that are enticing veteran gluten-free eaters.

Gone are the days of the cardboard-like, vacuum-sealed, packaged gluten-free bread from the early 2000s, Wilski said with a sigh of relief. “That used to be the only option,” she remembered.

Niche grocery stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and the Pacific Northwest chain New Seasons Market were the first to offer gluten-free options. Now mainstream supermarkets and big name companies, like General Mills and Hormel, are accommodating growing demand with tastier products.

According to Mintel, today, 39 percent of food companies manufacture gluten-free products, up from only 15 percent in 2009.

Mintel predicts that the trend will keep expanding in the next few years. According to its September 2014 report, it predicts that consumers will spend around $14 billion on gluten-free foods in 2017.

Goodbye gluten

Consumers are the force behind the moneymaking trend. Avoiding gluten for some is a medical necessity, while for others it’s seen as a way to eat healthier.

About 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease where the lining of the small intestine cannot absorb gluten and damages itself in the attempt. Another 2 to 3 percent of Americans have a gluten sensitivity where digestion is easier when gluten is avoided, and a very small portion of people have an allergy to wheat (experiencing symptoms that could be as serious as anaphylaxis shock), according to the Mayo Clinic.

Wilski has been free from gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats, since 2002. It began when her friend neglected to order a beer while they were out to dinner. Curious, Wilski asked about it, and the conversation turned to her friend's discovered gluten sensitivity. And the more her friend told Wilski about her symptoms, the more familiar it all sounded. “I have all of that!” she thought.

With nothing to lose, she tried a gluten-free diet. Within a few days, the difference was remarkable. She had more energy, the perpetual bloated feeling that she figured was normal disappeared, and her digestive tract performed better.

But the marketing campaign touting the health benefits of gluten-free products doesn't target people like Wilski. Mintel stated that 82 percent of gluten-free consumers do not have celiac disease. Some of those consumers may have an intolerance, but 38 percent “believe it is better for overall health,” 32 percent “believe it’s more natural” and 25 percent “eat them for weight loss,” according to Mintel’s survey.

The health halo of the gluten-free diet may be “based on some real science,” said Lang. “It is a little bit harder for our bodies to break down wheat in our digestive systems, although we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Gluten free may have some benefit in reducing that.” But that research is still in the scientific process and mostly unproven, he cautioned.

Meanwhile, dieters are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon as tennis star Novak Djokovic credits his gluten-free diet as a reason for his late-game stamina that pushed him to the top of the Association of Tennis Professionals’ world rankings.

However, Vicki Schwartz, a professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University, warns that there could be adverse effects of going gluten-free without a medical reason. Gluten-laden foods are rich in vitamin B, fiber and iron, she said. Therefore, if a person removes gluten from their diet, he or she will have to be diligent in finding other sources of those nutrients.

And a gluten-free diet is not proven to lead to weight loss, said Schwartz. Often when people eliminate gluten from their diet, they are “also eliminating many processed high-calorie foods such as fried foods, pizza, pasta and cream sauces,” she said, which could lead to weight loss if the dieter does not replace them with gluten-free versions of those fattening foods.

A gluten-free diet has also been shown to reduce symptoms of certain disorders like Type 1 diabetes and a chronic skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. But "evidence is weak" for the claims that it can treat autism, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, explained Schwartz.

Goodbye gluten-free?

Since there is such a wide and diverse group of people who are eating gluten-free diets, Mintel predicts that the gluten-free food market will continue to develop and expand as the list of reasons to go gluten-free grows.

But Lang and the market research company Hartman Group predict the gluten-free diet hype will settle down in a few years, just as the low-fat, low-carb and organic diets did.

“We recently did a survey through our university and we found that only 9 percent of the average consumer is even interested in gluten-free,” said Lang. “As consumer researchers, we know that … much less than that will actually act on it over the long term. I’d say it’s probably 6 percent. So, if you count 1 percent of the population with celiac and another 2 percent with sensitivity, then we’re talking 3 to 6 percent of people will remain gluten-free consumers over the long term.”

And only 11 percent of gluten-free food buyers eat gluten-free 75 to 100 percent of the time — the other 89 percent are only part-time adherers, according to the Hartman Group.

Those are sure signs of a fad, Lang affirmed. To the people who say that this is going to change the food business, he says, “Give it a few more years.”

A small market will remain for those who, like Wilski, need a gluten-free diet for medical reasons. But Lang predicts that the larger, healthy-eating group will hop on the next food bandwagon in a few years.

And the end of the hype could hurt small companies that are making large-scale changes like opening up separate gluten-free factories for a group of people who mostly aren’t even sure why they’re eating gluten-free except that they gather it is healthier, said Lang.

For consumers, Lang advised them to not “jerk your diet around … make drastic short-term changes in your diet to keep responding to different trends. We need to worry about the amount of fat, sugar and processed foods in our diets.” Those are lifelong, lifestyle adjustments to make. | Twitter: @debylene

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