Gluten-free used to be something that food makers didnt brag about.
The few products that were free of wheat or gluten would say so in small type on the back.
In the consumers mind, gluten-free meant It doesnt taste good, says Alice Bast, president of the National Celiac Awareness Foundation.
And now? Walk the aisles of any supermarket and gluten-free is shouting from the shelves. There are gluten-free products from Bisquick to Betty Crocker. Theres gluten-free soy sauce and gluten-free ketchup, even gluten-free cosmetics.
Now free means its better for you, says Bast. And a lot of people who dont have celiac disease and havent been diagnosed with gluten-sensitivity are reaching for gluten-free products.
While 1 to 2 percent of the population has celiac disease and 6 to 8 percent have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivities, up to 25 percent of Americans are eating gluten-free without being diagnosed and 69 percent are trying gluten-free products.
Even in the middle of an economic slowdown, the gluten-free industry has grown 30 percent. Its expected to hit $2.6 billion this year and $5 billion by 2015.
We have our sports figures saying their athletic prowess is better on a gluten-free diet, says Bast. And then you have the Gwyneth (Paltrows) and the Victoria Beckhams saying, I buy gluten-free it keeps me slender.
But while the trend is making it easier for people with celiac disease, its also bringing unwelcome changes more processed food, diet claims that arent proven and the risk of gluten-free menus that dont live up to the name.
It reminds me of the no-fat thing with Snackwells (nonfat cookies), says Barbara DAmbrosio of The Thoughtful Baker, an allergen- and gluten-free custom baker in Charlotte.
Its like everybody is getting on the gluten-free bandwagon.
A small beginning
For Lee Tobin, gluten-free started with one person himself.
I was just trying to feed myself, he says. When Tobin was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1998, he was working for Wellspring in Chapel Hill, a health-focused food market that had been bought by Whole Foods.
Tobin had a background as a chef and baker, so he made a few gluten-free baked goods and took them to a local support group.
Gluten-free was so new, the group only had four members. But they loved what he made and wondered if the store would make more.
Just for four of you? Tobin said. Well, why not well give it a try.
Tobin kept baking and the demand kept growing. In 2004, he convinced Whole Foods to let him start a gluten-free baking facility near Raleigh.
Today, the Whole Foods Market Gluten-Free Bakehouse in Morrisville bakes for more than 300 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada. It makes more than 20 products and handles the testing of gluten-free products and ingredients.
Now Tobin is seeing a new explosion: People who are putting themselves on the diet on their own, or who have had a doctor suggest they try it.
It can be a good diet, it can be a bad diet, he says. It depends on your approach.
Not diet foods
Gluten-free supporters and marketers make many claims about weight-loss and health. But health experts say people may lose weight or feel more energetic when they cut out gluten simply because they are paying attention to what they eat. Or theyre cooking more from scratch and using more fruits and vegetables because thats the easiest way to control what you eat.
But now that gluten-free products are expanding, that advantage may disappear. Gluten-free processed and convenience foods can be high in salt, sugar and starches. They also may be lower in fiber.
Its certainly not a weight-loss thing if youre eating most of the products out there now, says Peter Reinhart, the baking expert and cookbook author who works for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. If theyre not loaded with sugar, theyre loaded with starches that convert into body fat.
Reinhart isnt the first guy youd think of for wheat-free products. Hes famous for his work with bread and pizza. But his new book, coming out in August, is The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking.
Using nut flours, Splenda and stevia, Reinhart and co-author Denene Wallace came up with 80 recipes for breads, cookies and cakes that are easy enough for home bakers and that address a couple of health issues, including celiac disease and diabetes.
Reinhart lost some weight when he started working on the book. But hes quick to point out that just cutting out gluten doesnt make for easy weight loss.
These are not diet foods, he says. Theyre not low-calorie products.
There are positives to the interest in gluten-free products, of course. Charlotte baker Barbara DAmbrosio likes that some products have been changed in ways that improve them. For instance, corn tortillas or rice-based cereals could have been gluten-free all along, if they were made in a gluten-free facility.
DAmbrosio, who is not gluten-intolerant, bakes for her customers in a home kitchen that is certified allergen free. She uses separate pans and even separate mixing bowls for highly allergic customers.
With the gluten-free market growing so large, she worries, not all businesses will be that careful.
Thats a valid worry, says Bast. A lot (of restaurants) are saying they do it, but they dont understand cross-contamination, she says. Theyll remove the croutons from the salad, but theyll use the knife from the bread to cut the baked potato. And that little bit (of gluten) can be poison to someone with celiac disease.
Basts foundation emphasizes the importance of getting a diagnosis before you go gluten-free. For one thing, if you avoid gluten and then get tested, you may not get a true result from the test.
If you have been diagnosed, you can see it as an opportunity to learn new ways of cooking, Bast says. The interest in gluten-free cooking may push food makers into exploring new ingredients.
Theres got to be a happy medium, she says. Americans are used to convenience. There are a lot of natural foods that are convenient, like quinoa.
Until you have the consumers, changes are not going to be made. It was just 1 percent of us. Now that its 15 or 25 percent, we count.