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Behind the Gluten Free Diet

I live above an organic grocery store.
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(Before you pass out from envy, I must confess I also live literally* across the street from a major highway. You win some, you lose some.) I’ve noticed a curious trend. Gluten free options are taking over the store: muffins, crackers, pasta, you name it.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a gluten free diet is one that “excludes the protein gluten. Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).” It’s used to treat celiac disease, since gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines of people with the disease.

Makes sense so far.

But a 2012 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found “the prevalence of celiac disease in the United States was 0.71% (1 in 141), similar to that found in several European countries [and] most persons who were following a gluten free diet did not have a diagnosis of celiac disease.”

Although another more recent study found the incidence of celiac disease is growing in North America, it still did not explain the wild proliferation of gluten free foods. After all, according to the National Institutes of Health, there are only about two million people in the U.S. with the celiac disease.

Gluten Sensitivity

A study in the October 2012 issue of Biomed Central Medicine classified three types of gluten-related issues: allergies (wheat and other), autoimmune responses (i.e., celiac disease) and, essentially, ‘other,’ or those with gluten issues where the other two culprits are ruled out.

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As for a cause in the uptick in the gluten sensitivity, the researchers postulated that “the selection of wheat varieties with higher gluten content has been a continuous process during the last 10,000 years, with changes dictated more by technological rather than nutritional reasons.”

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Possibly. But they also noted that the idea of gluten sensitivity contributed to a “global market of gluten-free products approaching $2.5 billion in global sales in 2010.” I’m always suspicious of strict diets, especially when someone is making a lot of money promoting them. (Good riddance South Beach Diet, Atkins Diet, Blood Type Diet and “Fat-Free” Cake.)

This February 2013 post in theNew York TimesWell blog discusses the controversy. The doctor interviewed is a clear gluten-sensitivity doubter. He believes the number of people with true gluten sensitivities is limited to one percent of the population, and that a gluten free diet does nothing for someone without a true sensitivity or celiac disease.

Yet academic medical research is often behind on new, counter-intuitive or alternative explanations and remedies for ailments. Studies take a long time to conduct and publish, and the medical establishment is sometimes wary of non-Western approaches.

I want to hear from you: Do you have experience with gluten sensitivity? Has a gluten free diet worked for you or someone you know?

* I am a strict grammarian who despises the rampant misuse of the word “literally.” But in this case, I really literally live across the street from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway!

Images courtesy of AdamR and Marcus /


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