Rebekah Godfrey of Lexington used to leave the grocery store frustrated, her eyes and patience strained.
Why did manufacturers force her to search every label for gluten-laden ingredients that can ruin a day for people like her with celiac disease?
Nearly 1 out of 100 people in the United States has celiac, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine, according to a 2003 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Because the symptoms mimic many other ailments, the majority of celiacs haven't been diagnosed. Lots of people have no idea they are walking around with the disease. They simply think they have stomach problems or anemia.
Fortunately, celiac can be treated by eliminating gluten from the diet. Unfortunately, gluten, a protein found in common grains such as wheat, barley and rye, is ubiquitous in most grocery stores.
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But seven years after being diagnosed with the disease, Godfrey has become a pro at gluten-free shopping. "Now I go and get what I know I can eat," said Godfrey, 29. "It's a cinch."
Godfrey and others in the Midlands with celiac disease gather monthly, sharing tips on new gluten-free products or restaurants with gluten-free menus. The veterans say gluten-free grocery shopping is getting easier.
"If you see gluten-free on the label, that's the key," said Sandra McGravey, chairwoman of the Central SC Celiac Support Group. "And we're seeing more and more of that."
Most large grocery chains now highlight gluten-free products. Health-food stores and groceries that focus on natural foods have entire sections catering to gluten avoidance.
And the demand for gluten-free products is rising, a movement also fueled by health-conscious consumers, parents of autistic children and breast-feeding moms.
In 2008, more than 1,000 new gluten-free foods and beverages were introduced; sales have grown by an average of 28 percent during the past five years, according to the market research group Packaged Facts.
General Mills, which last year released a gluten-free version of Chex cereal, now offers gluten-free cookies and cakes under its Betty Crocker brand.
Many national restaurant chains have begun to offer gluten-free items (though people with extreme sensitivities should also ensure items are cooked in oil or water that hasn't been used previously to cook gluten-laden foods).
Cutting a little gluten out of everybody's diet wouldn't hurt, especially because that often means eating fewer processed foods. But you'll likely see benefits only if you have a wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, said Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research.
Otherwise, "the diet only has a 'placebo effect' at best" because gluten is naturally difficult for humans to digest, Fasano said. Any fullness or bloating you might feel after a pasta dinner, for example, is a result of the slow emptying of the stomach due to poor digestion of gluten rather than a bad reaction to it, Fasano said.
He worries that marketers are pushing people to eat gluten-free for no reason and turning the diet into a South Beach-like fad.
Avoiding gluten isn't just difficult and inconvenient; it's also expensive.
Gluten-free versions of products such as bread and crackers are often three times the cost of regular products, according to a study conducted by the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University.
Still, the diet is often touted as a healthy one because followers tend to diligently read labels, eat naturally gluten-free foods such as fruits and vegetables and avoid processed, shelf-stable foods. Despite its popularity, wheat gluten is not an essential nutrient.
What is it? An immune system reaction that causes inflammation in the small intestine when a person eats food containing gluten, a protein found in some grains, including wheat.
Symptoms: Digestive problems, skin rash, anemia, joint pain, bone loss.
Diagnosis: Requires a blood test followed by an endoscopy to check damage to small intestine.
Help: Central SC Celiac Support Group meets the third Monday each month. Information: centralscceliacsupportgroup.club.officelive.com
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