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Gluten-Free Eating Appears to Be Here to Stay


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Gluten-free is a $15.6 billion market:

A decade ago, few people other than those with celiac disease, a digestive condition, knew much about the health implications of gluten. But today, if you aren’t gluten-free, you likely know someone who is or is trying to be. The style of eating has become a way of life for many and a national punch line for others. More than a quarter of Americans say they are cutting down on gluten or eliminating it entirely. 

Optimistic researchers predict the market for gluten-free products will hit $15.6 billion by 2016. The Food and Drug Administration has noted the diet trend as well, and passed new labeling laws for gluten-free products to take effect in August.

Diet fads come and go. But observers of nutrition and eating trends in the United States say this food regimen is likely to last longer and have more impact because it comes at a time when food allergies, digestive health, genetic modification of grain and other concerns about the American diet are at an all-time high and food itself is the current cultural currency. Gluten-free eating addresses it all.

“We are in this period of cacophony with food, where people are more engaged and more confused,” said Amy Bentley, an associate professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s touching on very complicated issues in the food system right now.”

The number of people for whom eliminating gluten is a medical necessity is small. About 1 percent of the population has been found to have celiac disease, a disorder in which gluten — a protein in barley, rye and wheat — can damage the small intestine. Another 6 percent of the population is more broadly classified as gluten intolerant.

But the diet itself is used by people who want to lose weight, reduce inflammation, curb fatigue and ease other conditions, or because it helps them avoid highly processed grain. Many simply say they feel better without it, though there is not yet much scientific evidence to back up the claims.

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From a marketing angle, avoiding gluten is on track to become more widespread than the low-carbohydrate diet, championed by Dr. Robert Atkins, and its less-restrictive sister, the South Beach Diet.

The low-carb trend, which at one point had McDonald’s considering a bunless burger, peaked in 2004 as a $2.7 billion business in the United States. Market researchers put the number of people on it at that time between 9 and 18 percent.

The gluten-free business could reach at least $6.6 billion by 2017, according to an estimate by the research company Packaged Facts. About 28 percent of adults say they are interested in cutting down or avoiding gluten completely, according to tracking numbers from the NPD Group, which monitors American diet trends.

Only 7% are allergic or intolerant but 28% want to cut it down?

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