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Is going gluten-free good for you?

The foods are popular at Baltimore restaurants and supermarkets, but experts say few actually need them

By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

7:07 AM EST, February 16, 2012

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Henry Hunt said goodbye to gluten not because a doctor told him to, but because — like so many others — he decided he was better off without it.

"I diagnosed myself," he says, "because I'm really in tune with my body."

The Baltimore insurance salesman heartily endorsed his gluten-free diet recently while lunching at Sweet 27, a cafe that has similarly done away with the protein that's become the latest nutritional boogeyman — the new carb or fat or red meat. At the tiny Remington restaurant, the owner's wife says she can't tolerate gluten, the owner avoids it out of sympathy, and since working there, the cashier has decided that he must also be one of the people who can't eat it.

By some estimates, as much as a quarter of the country has cut back on gluten or eliminated it altogether. And yet, experts say, less than 10 percent of us have a real problem with gluten.

So everyone else? Those gluten-free muffins in your grocery cart are there for no good reason.

"I tell people, 'You don't have a reason to be on a gluten-free diet,'" says Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. "They say, 'But if I want to? Am I doing harm?' I say, 'Absolutely not, beside the harm to your pocketbook.'"

In a world where Oprah's magazine gushes about a line of boutique gluten-free pastas and where people can go into one of Baltimore's trendiest restaurants and request the gluten-free menu, it's hard to realize that not long ago, few people had even heard of "gluten."

In the last few years, even food industry experts have been wowed by the deluge of gluten-free products coming on the market, and the money even people immersed in a recession have been willing to spend on them.

Packaged Facts, a market research company, had predicted that gluten-free product sales would hit $2.6 billion by this year. But the country hit that benchmark two years early. Now, some marketers say, spending on gluten-free products tops $6 billion a year.

It hasn't hurt that a number of celebrities have talked up the gluten-free lifestyle, including Victoria Beckham, Zooey Deschanel and Drew Brees. Gwyneth Paltrow blogs about it. Chelsea Clinton's wedding cake was famously gluten-free. Elisabeth Hasselbeck wrote a book called "The G-Free Diet."

At the recent Sundance Film Festival, one gluten-free snack maker, determined to woo stars, set up in the swag area alongside the high-end cosmetics and designer accessories.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder affecting less than 1 percent of the population. If people who have it eat gluten, which is commonly found in wheat, barley and rye, they risk damaging their digestive systems. Symptoms range from cramps to weight fluctuation to fatigue, migraines and osteoporosis. Untreated, it can be life-threatening.

Gluten sensitivity on the other hand, typically involves symptoms similar to celiac disease but less severe. Fasano estimates about 6 percent of the population suffers from this relatively new diagnosis.

If one has celiac disease, that pretty much means no bread, pasta, cake, pie or cereal. No cookies or crackers or candy. No sauce, dressing or breading

But here's where it gets tricky: Gluten-sensitive people need only be as gluten-free as it takes for them to feel OK.

And, Fasano will be happy to tell anyone — all those starlets included — if you don;t have celiac disease and you're not gluten-sensitive, you might as well enjoy that crusty wheat bread.

But who's listening?

Last year, 1,968 gluten-free products made their debut, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database. About the same number debuted in 2010.

At Wegmans, an entire frozen-foods case is reserved for gluten-free goods, including macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie and muffins. Trader Joe's offers gluten-free rolls and cookies. When you order takeout Chinese food, chances are the soy sauce packet will boast its lack of gluten.

Businesses aren't going to these lengths for those with celiac disease, mainly because they aren't the ones driving the sales. What is driving sales, according to Mintel, is improvement in the taste of gluten-free goodies, people's perception that gluten-free food is more healthful, and good, old-fashioned trendiness.

"They go gluten-free because it's very fashionable," Fasano says. "Low-carb is not fashionable anymore; it is the gluten."

Hunt, a slim, middle-age man, says his energy used to be in the gutter, he was utterly unmotivated, his stomach puffed out in an unflattering way. "Every time I ate, it would shut me down," he says. "I just wanted to crawl up in the bed."

But without gluten, Hunt insists, he not only feels and looks better, but he swears his voice (he's a singer) went up two octaves.

He's a regular at Sweet Sin Bakery in Remington, which uses rice, tapioca and bean flours to bake bread, cupcakes, muffins and cookies — all gluten-free. Recently it was offering decadent-looking chocolate Valentine's Day bombes filled with raspberry or peanut butter.

Owner Richard D'Souza says pizza is the biggest seller at Meet 27, his gluten-free restaurant that shares Sweet Sin's kitchen.

He says the inspiration for the bakery and the restaurant is his wife, Renee, who says her digestive system and her mood improved markedly since she gave up gluten. Though he has no problems with gluten, he eats it only rarely and calls it "cheating" when he does.

With his restaurant and lifestyle, D'Souza doesn't think he's being trendy — he thinks he's ahead of the curve. He's pretty sure the powers that be will soon be cracking down on gluten, they way they have on sugar, salt and saturated fat.

"I foresee this gluten-free is going to be a required thing," he says. "I see that's what is coming."

Woodberry Kitchen, one of Baltimore's most highly regarded restaurants, has offered a gluten-free menu since it opened four years ago. Chef Spike Gjerde, whose wife has celiac disease and knows how seriously some people have to consider gluten, is loath to call his accommodations trendy. He considers the move a community service.

He estimates that hardly a night goes by when someone doesn't request the gluten-free menu. And of all those orders, he knows some of them are from folks who could eat gluten but prefer not to.

"Who am I to say what's more real or what's more valid when it comes to these things?" he says.

So he strives to fill all gluten-free orders as if someone's life depended on keeping away from grains.

Fasano is from Italy, where the idea of cutting pasta and crusty bread from one's diet is almost sacrilege. Yet, immersed in the field as he is, he's seen how cutting those grains can help those who truly need to.

Between that and hearing how elite athletes have restricted their gluten intake to successfully increase their endurance, he decided he needed to walk the walk and go gluten-free, just for a while, so he could speak to his patients with firsthand experience.

After a couple of weeks of doing without gluten, he says, "I didn't see too much of a difference."

He might have felt a tad more energetic. Or not.

His bottom line to anyone who's considering going gluten-free, or to anyone who has already taken the plunge without consulting a doctor: Don't.

But Fasano can't say he's entirely disappointed with what the craze has brought to the marketplace. He remembers a time not long ago when he could literally count the available products on his fingers.

"If people are so nuts," he says, "if they drive the market for patients that really need to be on a gluten-free diet, I don't see anything wrong with that."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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