Beyond Bread: Gluten-Free Foods

Why are gluten-free products crowding supermarket shelves?

Walk into any natural-foods store these days and you’re likely to find a special section stocked with gluten-free foods: Pasta made from rice, teff-flour cookies, quinoa-and-amaranth crackers. Even major supermarkets now carry alternative goodies containing no wheat, barley, or rye. And with the gluten-free products market growing at about 17 percent per year in the United States, you’ll soon see many more such items.

A rash of new books from major publishers–with titles like 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes (Wiley, fall 2008), Gluten Free, Quick and Easy (Avery, summer 2007), and even Living Gluten-Free for Dummies (For Dummies, 2006)–are slated for release or are in stores now. So what is gluten? And why are people avoiding it?

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye–as well as several less-common related grains–that gives them the ability to stick together and form doughs and batters. Recent research indicates that at least one in 133 people has celiac disease, a genetic condition that makes them unable to digest gluten. For celiac patients, eating foods with gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine, leading to digestive discomfort, inflammation, and malabsorption of nutrients–which in turn can trigger other health problems, such as osteoporosis, skin rashes, and infertility.

Doctors speculate that there are even more undiagnosed celiacs out there, and that others may be sensitive to gluten without having full-fledged celiac disease. “Some people just feel better when they don’t eat gluten, and that may mean that they don’t digest it very well,” says Joseph Murray, a doctor and celiac disease researcher. Symptoms of gluten intolerance are similar to but less severe than celiac symptoms and can include digestive discomfort and inflammation.

One reason that gluten intolerance is on the rise may be growing dietary concerns among the public. “The medical community is slowly becoming more aware of the problem, but that pales in comparison to the public’s awareness of how food affects us,” says Stephen Wangen, a naturopathic doctor based in Seattle. Recent fads like low-carb and raw-food diets require people to cut out wheat and other grain products; some experts think these diets may have led some people to realize they felt better when they avoided gluten. The market for gluten-free goods is expanding among non-celiac sufferers, too, as a growing number of people remove gluten from their diets even without a diagnosis.

Developing gluten-free crackers, cookies, and other products involves much trial and error. Specialty flours made from gluten-free foods like rice and corn, or “heritage” grains like sorghum and quinoa, must be coaxed into forming dough, which rarely bakes with the same texture as wheat flour. So a binding agent, like xanthan or guar gum, is added to give gluten-free baked goods the same elasticity and feel as those that contain gluten. The catch is that every single ingredient has to be processed in a gluten-free facility to be considered uncontaminated, because even a trace of wheat, barley, or rye can trigger a reaction in gluten-sensitive people.

Many of today’s big names in alternative-grain goodies are (or began as) small, independent companies whose owners often had personal reasons for launching their product lines. “When I went to parties with tables full of cheeses and dips, there wasn’t a cracker or bread stick I could eat,” writes Mary Waldner, co-founder of the company Mary’s Gone Crackers. Another manufacturer, Gluten-Free Pantry, was founded in 1993 by celiac sufferer Beth Hillson, who was dissatisfied with the gluten-free baked goods on the market.

Carol Fenster, a cookbook author whose titles include the forthcoming 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes and Gluten Free, Quick and Easy, says she used to know all the company founders “on a first-name basis,” but that’s changing. Gluten-Free Pantry, for instance, was recently bought by the Canadian company Glutino, one of the world’s largest gluten-free food manufacturers.

Whether suffering from celiac disease or not, the gluten-free community feels very strongly about its cause. Many people report feeling more energetic and alert when they don’t eat gluten–perhaps in part because eliminating wheat and related grains means cutting out many high-glycemic foods, such as packaged snacks and fast foods.

Danna Korn, the author of Living Gluten-Free for Dummies, argues that everyone could benefit from giving up wheat and its relatives. “My son has celiac disease, but I’m not gluten-intolerant; still, I wouldn’t touch gluten if you paid me–not after the research I’ve done,” she says. “Our systems were not designed to handle gluten.” That may be an extreme view, but it seems to be catching on. “There are a lot of people who avoid wheat simply because of the health benefits,” says Joseph Pace, the chef and owner of Risotteria in New York City, a celiac-friendly restaurant that also sells a line of prepared gluten-free foods.

Despite the rising popularity of the gluten-free diet, most doctors say it isn’t for everyone. For one thing, it can be hard to obtain adequate amounts of certain nutrients–like fiber and B vitamins-without wheat and its cousins (in their whole-grain form, at least). Moreover, it’s hard to truly stick to the diet, and it’s expensive to buy gluten-free items, which often fetch a premium of more than 300 percent.

And let’s face it: Eating processed foods–be they gluten-free cookies or vegan ice-cream sandwiches–isn’t as healthy as sticking to whole, unrefined fare. So while gluten-free goodies won’t solve the nation’s obesity or diabetes problems, they may be a crucial step toward better health for many people–maybe even you.

Plenty is an environmental media company dedicated to exploring and giving voice to the green revolution that will define the 21st Century. Click here to subscribe to Plenty.

By Christy Harrison, Plenty magazine


William C
William C1 years ago


W. C
W. C1 years ago

Thank you.

Yulan Lawson
Yulan Lawson6 years ago

I've been gluten intolerant for years thanks to too much antibiotics as a kid and now it's easier to find foods we can eat. Some places are still hard though.

Paula Gillis
Paula G8 years ago

Just found out I have celiac. Have notified family as there is a strong family genetic trace. I was tested 10 years ago, they lost the testing and decided I was fine. Life became unbearable, I looked up the symptoms and there I am. Life started improving within 24 hours. Will attend a celiac support group for a while to get some ideas. Problem is I hate cooking.

I eat Quaker oats and they do not appear to be an issue. Will see what happens.

They definitely need better labeling and better choices.

Michael G.
Michael G8 years ago

I just found out that I'm gluten intolerant - and am just now learning - from this site - about celiac disease. I am already diagnosed with ulcerative colitis - now I'm wondering if I have celiac disease as well. They have similar symptoms.

Kymberlee F.
Kym F8 years ago

Oats in and of themselves are gluten free. HOWEVER!!!, the cross contamination rate is excessively high and can cause problems with many. Bob's Red Mill sells GF oats and are very good.

I find if I eat oats that are not certified, I get that darn rash and a belly ache.

So for what it is worth, that is my 2 cents worth! :)

Alice B.
Alice B8 years ago

I haven't been able to tolerate bread since they started adding non-fat dry milk or sodium caseinate to it, and the label-reading involved in processed foods is so complex, I accidentally eliminated most gluten from my diet. Except at the holidays. I bake a couple of loaves of bread then, doesn't seem to bother me, but when I totally cut the dairy and bread a few years ago I certainly felt much better. And peanut butter on homemade bread is pretty good for a special treat.

Oats aren't mentioned - as having or not having gluten. Does anyone know?

Catherine C.
Catherine C9 years ago

I have stopped all gluten in my diet - no reason other than I feel better without it. Funny- I still love the smell of fresh croissants or pastry- breads- but I do not have it... Very cool markets in my area that carry gluten free everything!!!
I tried a few things, and will stay without...
Fresh is best!

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just do it!! ( woohoo Nike! )... it feels so good!


Sherri Barberi
Sherri Barberi9 years ago

Good, brief article on celiac. There are more and more foods that are gluten free on the market, but more is needed so the pricing can be reduced for one! The UK is so much farther ahead in that arena... even though i am celiac and living gluten free for about 3 yrs now, it IS not easy to do... and it's true, minute amounts are such a problem, which many people just find hard to believe.

Jenny W.
Jenny L W9 years ago

Because my nutritionist suspects I am gluten intolerant and my internist agreed it was a distinct possibility, I began doing a lot of research on the issue and was surprised to hear how many celiac/gluten intolerant are asymptomatic and thus undiagnosed...and it surprised me how damaging it can now I've been tested and I'm just waiting for the results...yes, at Thanksgiving....I have decided that either way, I'm not going to make radical changes to my diet until after the symptoms aren't extreme luckily, but honestly, I admit I dread going gluten-free, it's clearly a lot harder than most would think....I am just glad to know there are so many out there who do so successfully and satisfactorily (from a food standpoint)