What’s the deal with gluten?

According to a report from NPR, Harry Balzer — Chief Industry Analyst and Vice President The NPD Group — about one third of the United States population is trying, to some extent, to remove gluten from their diet. Recently scientists, doctors and dieticians have been looking into this consumer craze as they attempt to find truth behind buzzwords such as, “gluten sensitive.”

“I have mixed thoughts about this [gluten sensitivity],” said Megan Anderson, a dietician at NAU. “I think some people really do have a hard time breaking down that protein of gluten and that might be where we see digestion issues like bloating and the stuff that someone might think are like the typical symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.”

Alexandra Lardner has been gluten free for three years after she was told that an antigen leukocyte cellular test (ALCAT) showed she had sensitivity to gluten. This test is based on leukocyte — a type of white blood cell — activity around certain food antigens in the blood stream.

“At first, I couldn’t tolerate it [gluten] at all and would get violently sick from something as minimal as soy sauce,” Lardner said. “But now that I have cleansed my body and eliminated certain foods out of my diet, I can tolerate it every once in a while in small doses.”

A 2014 study by the Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine points out that, “The underlying cellular and molecular steps have not been fully identified [by the scientific community].”

These symptoms are not always a response to strictly gluten, according to Anderson. Someone might experience discomfort due to an allergy to wheat, which would trigger an autoimmune response to all of the proteins found in wheat―not just gluten.

“There definitely are some other issues that we don’t know what the causes are yet,” Anderson said.

Public figures such as Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, raving about gluten free products on the television shows like Shark Tank have also popularized the avoidance of gluten.

“It’s so trendy,” Anderson said. “There are celebrities who swear by it [gluten-free]. There are people who might hear from a friend that a gluten-free diet worked for them. It’s not the end of the world, but if you switch your diet without testing [for celiac disease] you’re never going to get a true diagnosis.”

The effects of celiac disease vary in severity from person to person. According to Anderson there are some people who cannot even come into contact with the smell of food containing gluten, while others might feel a slight stomach ache. Regardless of the severity of the symptoms, untreated celiac disease can result in a deficiency in nutrients such as iron and B vitamins.

Celiac disease is the inability of the small intestine to break down a protein found in wheat as well as many other foods called gluten. According to a study done by the University of Chicago Medical Center, roughly one in every 133 people have this deficiency.

Whether or not someone has received a true diagnosis of celiac disease, the anti-gluten phenomenon has made the transition much easier for those that must eliminate gluten from their diets. According to Statista, the gluten-free industry will reach a projected value of $23.9 billion by 2020.

“There are so many more [gluten-free products] and so many more available in restaurants,” Lardner said. “A lot more [establishments] are all gluten-free too, even at stadiums and airports. It’s available everywhere.”

Graph by Matthew Kiewiet using statistics from statista.com
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