Chef Dawn Purbaugh was diagnosed with celiac disease when she was 7.
Purbaugh, now 41, said it was hard back then to find foods made without gluten, the wheat-protein that made her sick.
Today, gluten-free products are so popular that she can buy foods that accommodate her illness from nearly every grocery store, and support her own business selling them.
Every day, Purbaugh serves more than 100 customers at her Monroe-based bakery, Guilt-Free Goodness.
A decade ago, it seemed that few people had a problem eating gluten in bread and other foods. Now millions do.
Gluten-free products fly off grocery shelves, and restaurants advertise meals with no gluten.
Some churches even offer gluten-free Communion wafers.
Are there more people with the problem or is it just another food fad?
It might be both, studies say.
Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion this year on foods labeled gluten-free, according to Mintel, the market research firm.
The best estimates are that more than half the consumers buying these products — perhaps way more than half — don’t have any medically diagnosed reaction to gluten, said Melissa Abbott, who tracks the gluten-free market for the Hartman Group, a Seattle-area market research organization.
Some people buy gluten-free because they think it will help them lose weight, she said.
These “fad dieters,” as Abbott calls them, are the largest group of consumers in her research.
But gluten-free products aren’t always healthier, she said.
Foods that replace gluten with other ingredients, such as rice, tapioca and potato starch, instead of omitting the protein, have added processed fat and starches.
“Studies have proved that celiac patients who ate these products over a period of time actually gained weight,” Abbott said.
Other people mistakenly believe they are sensitive to gluten.
“We have a lot of self-diagnosing going on out there,” she said.
For more than 10 years, Abbott has been tracking the gluten-free market by shopping with consumers and unpacking groceries to see how they use products.
She said that many of the people she has visited who believe they react poorly to gluten might be mistaken.
“They will say, ‘Oh, I’m totally allergic to gluten,’ but when we open up their cupboards, we see beer and other products that they haven’t been having a problem with.”
Still, research suggests more people are truly getting sick from the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley, but the reasons aren’t clear.
In 2009, a research team led by the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Joseph Murray looked at blood samples taken from Americans in the 1950s and compared them with samples taken from people today, and determined it wasn’t just better diagnosis driving up the numbers. Celiac disease actually was increasing.
Indeed, the research confirms estimates that about 1 percent of U.S. adults have celiac disease today, making it five times more common now than it was 50 years ago, Murray and his colleagues reported in the July 2009 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
That translates to nearly 2 million Americans with celiac disease.
Some scientists suggest that there may be more celiac disease today because people eat more processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods than in decades past, and those items use types of wheat that have a higher gluten content.
It might also be caused by changes made to wheat, Murray said.
In the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make hardier, shorter and better-growing plants. It was the basis of the Green Revolution that boosted wheat harvests worldwide. Norman Borlaug, the U.S. plant scientist behind many of the innovations, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
But the gluten in wheat may have somehow become even more troublesome for many people, Murray said.
Ashley Stewart: 425-339-3037; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to the story.
Gluten: A protein found in wheat, rye and barley that helps dough rise and gives baked goods structure and texture.
Celiac disease: An autoimmune disease, triggered by gluten, that causes the body to attack the intestinal system, creating symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and intermittent diarrhea. Celiacs don’t absorb nutrients well and can suffer weight loss, fatigue, rashes and other problems.
Celiac disease is different from an allergy to wheat, which affects a much smaller number of people, mostly children who outgrow it.
Gluten sensitivity: The condition of people who suffer bloating and other celiac symptoms but test negatively for the disease, diagnosed through blood testing, genetic testing or biopsies of the small intestines.
Snohomish County is studded with stores selling gluten-free goods. Here are a few:
Guilt-Free Goodness: 14957 N. Kelsey St., Monroe; 360-794-5266; www.guilt-free-goodness.com.
Janell’s Gluten Free Market: 7024 Evergreen Way, Everett; 425-347-3500; www.janellsglutenfreemarket.com.
Just for the Health of It: 9214 State Ave., Marysville; 360-691-9713.
Beyond baked goods
We expect to find gluten in our baked goods, but the protein is also used to thicken or firm up other foods.
Here are five foods with gluten that might surprise you:
1. Blue cheese
2. Instant coffee
4. Lunch meats
5. Salad dressings, soy sauce and mustards
Learn to bake gluten-free for the holidays at a free class from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Lynnwood Library, 19200 44th Ave. W. Call 425-778-2148 or check www.sno-isle.org for more information.