Lane Jackson, a sophomore biology major, had no idea what was happening when he felt intense stomach pain while on a family vacation in Hawaii when he was 10 years old.
The 20-year-old said he was just enjoying the sights and food 10 years ago, when the pain struck out of nowhere and his parents had to rush him to the hospital.
“I just felt miserable,” Jackson said. “It was this constant crippling pain. We had no idea what was going on.”
In the year following this painful event, Jackson was given numerous tests to find the source of his pain. Blood test, shots and biopsy: the end result was inconclusive. Jackson was eventually told to fast to see what foods might be causing his symptoms.
When he was 11, doctors finally found his diagnosis: celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder that causes an intense reaction to food containing gluten. Besides the pain, the condition causes damage to the lining of the small intestine, making it difficult to absorb nutrients.
The earliest documentation of celiac disease was in the First Century by Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a Greek physician, who named it koiliakos, after the Greek word koelia, or abdomen. However, it was not until the early 19th Century when Dr. Matthew Baillie published its first observations on a chronic diarrhea disorder on adult patients with malnutrition and characterized by a bloated belly, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
Jackson’s intestines were inflamed the day following his episode in Hawaii. He learned later that it was the gluten in wheat as well as grains like rye and barely that were causing this. Since celiac’s has no cure, his only option is to switch his diet, avoiding everything that contains gluten.
Ted Breslow, also a sophomore biology major, took a different path to the gluten-free diet. Although eating foods with gluten did not cause him as much pain as it did Jackson, Breslow felt enough discomfort to know something was wrong.
“I started getting stomachaches once in a while,” Breslow said.
But when he was 17 he watched his brother become healthier.
“He was trying to lose weight and I was surprised how quick he got so lean,” Breslow said.
Along with exercise, his brother had gone gluten free. Breslow had never heard of it but after seeing his brother’s results, he decided to give it a try.
After going on this diet for a couple of months, Breslow said the stomachaches were gone.
“I felt so much better, and I stuck with it,” Breslow said.
He later went to his doctor and told him he was gluten-intolerant. Gluten intolerance has similar symptoms to celiac disease, but it does not cause intestinal damage, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
People who commit to a gluten-free diet need to avoid consuming food containing this particular protein. This can be difficult since gluten is in grains such as wheat, rye and barely, which are key components in of many favorite foods.
Besides breads, pastas, cereal and cakes, gluten can be found in food like coffee, beer and salad dressing, lunch meat and hot dogs.
Gluten is also used as a protein supplement, and meat substitute in vegan and vegetarian diets, according to WebMD.
The gluten-free diet is a necessary solution for 3 million people in the United States with celiac disease, and roughly 18 million who are gluten intolerant. Gluten free is the only treatment for these conditions.
Today, however, the diet has become a popular choice for many who do not suffer from either of these conditions. Time magazine labeled the gluten-free diet the second most popular diet trend in 2012, behind posting food pictures on Instagram. And New Product Development Group, a marketing research firm, found in their “Food for Thought” study that approximately 29 percent of people said they are trying to avoid gluten.
This trend has resulted in a $4.2 billion profit to the gluten free industry last year alone, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts. The firm predicts this will grow to $6.6 billion by 2017. There was no event or report that sparked the sudden demand for the gluten-free products,which cost on average 242 percent more than their gluten-containing counterparts.
“It always seems to start with buzz,” said Darren Seifer, New Product Development Group food and beverage analyst. “It’s just a sense of well-being that if you curb certain things of your intake, you will feel better.”
This trend shares a similar attraction of previous mainstream. People were told to avoid sugar, followed by saturated and unsaturated fats and more recently carbs.
Yet in the long run, Seifer said that fad diets that require limiting something do not usually last long.
“If you hear someone say, ‘avoid this and this,’ they may find it confusing,” Seifer said. “Some people may not know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat. To them it is just fat.”
Jackson said he has mixed feelings about the gluten-free trend. While this popularity has restaurants and food manufacturers providing gluten-free products, he thinks that people who go gluten-free by choice are taking it too seriously.
“It kind of gives celiac and gluten-intolerant people a bad name,” Jackson said. “Whenever I visit a restaurant, I hear some people ask if they provide gluten-free food. If they don’t, they get pissed and take it out on the waiters.”
“It upsets me as well, but in a way the trend helps because now we don’t have to explain our life stories,” Breslow said.
There are claims that gluten-free diets promote numerous health benefits like better cholesterol and energy levels but none of this has been confirmed, according to NPD Group.
Gluten, a combination of different proteins, is seen as this scary ingredient, but Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council, said many are ignorant on the subject.
“Out of the 29 percent who switched to gluten-free, 28 percent probably do not even know what gluten is,” Adams said.
“They think it is something that is added in food but it has been here for thousands of years.”
Along with its health benefits, gluten is used to add texture and chewiness in baked goods, which is why it is found in flour and bread. It is also used as a thickener in food like soups, broths and ketchup.
Whole grain foods may help lower the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, according to WebMD.
“It is added so people can eat it (the food) and give it a light feel,” Adams said. “There is nothing wrong with it, and we want people to eat healthy.”
Another reason why gluten is added to some food products is because it enhances flavor, from spice blends to dairy products. Adams said that it is the customers’ demand for better tasting food is why gluten is added.
According to research and advisory firm Nerac, Inc., only 36 percent of standard markets contain gluten-free products.
For people who are not affected by celiac disease, gluten is healthy yet it is seen in a negative way, Adams said.
However, the gluten-free diet has also attracted some celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Miley Cryus – all of whom have neither celiac nor gluten-intolerance.
Adams thinks that if people seeing them gluten-free and looking good, then it may work for them.
But switching diets can cause nutritional deficiencies, according to WebMD. Grains that contain gluten are rich in vitamins and minerals like Vitamin B, iron and fiber.
Some say gluten-free products are not as tasty as their counterparts. Since gluten, the flavor enhancer, is taken out, food manufacturers now have to find some way to keep the flavor them same without the gluten.
“People enter into this diet because they say they want to lose weight, but what is ironic is that gluten-free food has more fat and sugar added, just for taste,” Adams said. “They are using this medical diet as a fad.”
Adams said she is not against the gluten-free diet. Her organization offers information and makes sure people have access to such food.
She has experience with people who have dealt with celiac disease, like her brother who was diagnosed with celiac disease 50 years ago.
It just worries her how people and restaurants are jumping onto this bandwagon without thinking it through.
Celiac disease tends to cluster in families but the inheritance pattern is currently unknown, according to Genetics Home Reference.
Liza Sauls, former customer of Power Over Flour which was a gluten-free market located in Claremont, is also affected with celiac disease, along with her family.
Some of her family members were diagnosed in 1960s and it first did not know how to treat it. They were eventually referred to the gluten-free diet, but finding such products was difficult.
“The rest of the family had significant damage and health issues before the real reason was found and the proper foods were eliminated,” Sauls said.
“We used to get most products online and they would be costly with the shipping.”
This is when her daughter took ownership the store from a previous owner in January 2012. Here, Sauls’ family, along with others affected with celiac disease, could find numerous gluten-free products, like Fabe’s gluten-free chocolate fudge cake and Kape’t Gatas Coney Island Tropical Ice Cream.
However, when major stores like Ralph’s and Albertson’s started selling gluten-free products, Power Over Flour was unable to compete and closed in October.
“We found people wanted to have every item on their grocery list in the same location,” Sauls said.
The gluten-free market may be closed but she is still actively spreading the word about the benefits of a gluten-free diet for those who need it. While the majority of people are not gluten intolerant, she advises people to reduce their wheat intake.
“Pretty much anyone should at least minimize wheat-based products because now they are mostly genetically modified,” Sauls said. “They are resistant to pesticides and contain up to 10-times more gluten than they did 10 year ago.”
While some believe genetic modification has affected gluten levels in wheat, there is no definitive evidence of this. According to Dr. William Davis, cardiologist and the author of “Wheat Belly Cookbook,” while wheat has been exposed to practices like hybridization with non-wheat plants, introducing new genes to the wheat, or genetic modification is not used in wheat.
Regardless, Sauls spreads the word through social media and attending celiac support groups, along with Lynne Turner, an event coordinator for a local celiac support group.
Turner promotes this diet because when some people switch to a gluten-free diet by choice, like Breslow, they notice how much better they feel.
“When they switch people lose their allergies over a period of time,” Turner said. “Some people may just be gluten-intolerant without even knowing it.”
By choice or as a necessity, the gluten-free diet has been accepted one way or another.
“It is a necessary part of our lives,” Breslow said.
Alex Forbess can be reached at email@example.com.