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Gluten-Free By Popular Demand

Abbie Fentress Swanson
Harvest Public Media

Gluten-free diets, which bar food containing wheat, rye and barley, are wildly popular today. Which is surprising since only about one percent of the U.S. population suffers from Celiac disease, the disorder that causes their immune systems to reject the pesky gluten.

Six months ago, Kara Welter drastically changed her diet by eliminating food that contains wheat, rye or barley.

“I don’t eat gluten,” said Welter, a 41-year-old marketing executive in Kansas City. “I happened to just try it because I was having stomach issues for years. And it turns out within three days, I stopped having stomach issues.”

Welter’s gluten decision stemmed from what she read online. Medical tests showed that she did not have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, the disorder that causes the immune system to reject the gluten.

“I don’t care if it’s the placebo effect it’s completely changed my life,” she said.

More than1.6 million Americans like Welter are on gluten-free diets even though they haven’t been instructed by their doctor to do so. And it’s not just gluten-free foods that consumers are hoping will fix their health woes. People are eating according to their blood type, following low-carb diets and eating like cavemen on the Paleolithic – or Paleo - diet. With a few clicks of the mouse, they are finding plenty of guidance through Facebook discussions, online recipes and videos featuring celebrities extolling a diet’s benefits.

In her office at the University of Missouri in Columbia, registered dietician Ellen Schuster said she’s seeing more people make food decisions by surfing the net, adding that a recentPew Research Center report found that 59 percent of adult Americans look online for health information.

“I do think people are relying on the Internet, they’re relying on mobile apps, they’re relying on social media,” she said. “And I do think that there is -- for some people, not everyone -- there may be distrust of the health care system and people look to friends and other sources of information, family, for, for health conditions.”

Johnna Perry, who teaches gluten-free cooking classes in Liberty, Mo., agreed.

“So many people have gone through doctor after doctor after doctor looking for a way to feel better and not finding that doctor who’s the puzzle solver for them just yet,” she said. “And so they’re kind of left putting this in their own hands.”

Perry, who does have celiac disease, estimated that half her students are eating gluten-free by choice, not medical necessity.

The word on gluten-free has spread rapidly over the last few years. Gluten-free retail sales rose 28 percent last year to $4.2 billion, according to the market research group Packaged Facts.

Jen Cafferty, who organizesgluten- and allergen-free expos across the country, has seen the number of people attending them grow from 200 to 10,000 in six years.

“There are a lot of people trying the diet because it’s the cool, popular thing to do,” Cafferty said. “However, I also think that there are a lot of people trying the diet because they don’t feel well. And they’re hoping that might help with their symptoms.”

University of Missouri dietician Schuster said consumers are looking for a magic bullet.

“’What is the one thing that I can do? If can remove gluten from the diet, everything will be fine. I’ll feel better,’” she said. “And of course we know that’s not true.”

Eliminating certain foods from a diet can be risky said Paula Vandelicht, a nutritionist at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Columbia, Mo. Among other things, she advises customers about the shortcomings of a gluten-free diet.

“Unfortunately if you take out the wheat component of food, that encompasses some of the fiber in your everyday diet,” Vandelicht said. “So unless you're getting large numbers of fruits, vegetables, other whole grains such as chia seed or flax seed, you're missing the big fiber component.”

Many gluten-free products on the market are also highly processed and full of added fat and calories.

Still, because so many of her clients are sold on certain diets, Vandelicht said she simply tries to make sure they’re fully informed – rather than change their diet.

“I can't really argue with them if they're saying it makes them feel better other than to show them ways to make sure that they're getting all of the nutrients that they need by following that certain diet,” she said.

What do you think? This story was reported with help from our Harvest Network -- a network of real people that helps inform us about issues facing food producers and consumers. Click here to sign up to be a part of the network.

Abbie Fentress Swanson left KBIA at the end of 2013.
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