Gluten refers to proteins naturally found in wheat, barley, and rye (and in the US, oats, because of their frequent processing with wheat).
Gluten causes symptoms or intestinal damage to an estimated 21 million Americans- that’s almost 7% of the US population. Approximately 18 million are estimated to be Gluten-Intolerant, and another 3 million people to have Celiac Disease.
Sometimes there are symptoms, sometimes there aren’t, and that’s why 97% of celiac disease sufferers are undiagnosed. Typically, gluten-intolerance is characterized by symptoms after ingesting gluten (bloating, cramps, fatigue, and in general, ‘not feeling right’). Celiac Disease causes a quasi-autoimmune response that steadily attacks the intestinal lining and destroys its ability to absorb nutrition; there may not be any other symptoms. Classic Celiac Disease in children shows similarities with malnutrition (distended bellies and failure to thrive). If Celiac Disease is suspected, a blood test followed by endoscopy will confirm the diagnosis. Undiagnosed and untreated, celiac disease can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders, as well as osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions and in rare cases, cancer.
There is no current treatment other than a strict adherence to a gluten-free diet.
In August, 2013, the US FDA issued a final rule to define the term “gluten-free” for voluntary use in the labeling of foods. “Gluten-Free” applies to foods that are inherently gluten-free, prepared with gluten-free ingredients, or can be shown to contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. More information is available on the FDA’s website: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm362880.htm
Eating naturally gluten-free food is the right start, but the gluten-free consumer frequently finds it difficult to determine and accept whether their meal or product is truly “gluten-free.” In some individuals as little as 1/64th of a teaspoon of gluten will trigger symptoms or an immune system response. So cross-contamination and ‘hidden’ gluten are risks. Utensils, surfaces and equipment previously used to prep gluten-containing foods can result in cross-contamination that “taints” naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and dairy. Gluten is also in many seasonings, and used as a food additive. And its presence is frequently “hidden” in many processed foods, because the listing of gluten as an allergen, unlike wheat, is not required on product labels.
Gluten-free pizzas, breads, and baked goods continue to improve in quality and increase in prevalence. Still, gluten-free diners and consumers are looking for more variety and taste among current gluten-free options, as well as increased confidence that their meal is entirely gluten-free. U.S. sales of gluten-free foods and beverages have grown 20% annually since 2008 and are estimated to exceed $6.6 billion by 2017. In response, gluten free menu claims have soared by 40%.
The gluten-free opportunity comes with a new and great challenge for the foodservice and restaurant industries. The decision to offer gluten-free options is not a trivial one. Converting to a gluten-free menu can be costly, complicated and confusing. And surveys show restaurant chefs and their staff lack adequate gluten-free knowledge, making the risk of cross-contamination and potential for adverse health effects to the customer a very real possibility. It is important for you to be educated so that you can have an intelligent conversation with the waitstaff, manager, and chef.
There are several credible websites that provide more information:
The Celiac Sprue Association (CSA)
The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
Verywell.com – How to Go Gluten-Free