July 30, 2008

New Products Let People Cut Gluten From Diet

By Chris Jones, The Oklahoman

Jul. 30--Gluten is in the news frequently, and Mary Ann O'Dell, a registered dietitian and director for Akins Natural Foods in Tulsa, said there are a number of reasons why the national spotlight is on the common sticky substance. In August, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to release its official definition of gluten-free foods.

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, oats, rye and barley.

Gluten shows up in much of what we eat every day. National Foundation for Celiac Awareness statistics show one in eight Americans is gluten intolerant, and one in 133 has celiac disease.

More Americans are removing gluten from their diet because of celiac disease, allergies or general sensitivity, and the number of gluten-free food products, cookbooks and restaurants with gluten-free menu items has increased as a response to the demand. Sales from gluten-free products reached $1.3 million in 2007, a 20 percent increase over previous years.

Reading food labels is a must for anyone on a gluten-free diet, because it's much more involved than simply avoiding bread.

Many Americans who have celiac disease are unaware that they have the disease, but as public awareness increases, medical experts, food manufacturers and restaurants are responding.

"I think diagnostic procedures have vastly improved and more people are being diagnosed as gluten intolerant," O'Dell said. "Certain groups of people are now trying gluten-free diets as a means of helping improve an existing condition such as autism, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and irritable bowel syndrome. Removing gluten from the diet won't get rid of the condition, but it is worth a try to adapt a gluten-free diet."

O'Dell said there are gluten-free products in virtually every food category, particularly flour, breads and pasta. One of the best ways to avoid gluten is to choose unprocessed foods that are naturally gluten free, such as fresh produce, dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, potatoes, nuts and beans.

"We have a gluten-free section in our stores," O'Dell said, "and we have put all the gluten-free products together. This is something we didn't have five years ago because there weren't anywhere near the products that are available now."

Items include buffalo hot dogs, cookies, crackers and pizza crust. Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods has a line of all natural, organic and gluten-free flours, cereals, meals and mixes for pancakes, breads and soups.

Gary Dodson, owner of Dodson's Nutritional Food Center in Norman, said demand for gluten-free products has increased. Products range from barbecue sauce to bagels, cookie mixes and frozen dinners.

"The big competition now with food companies is who can make the best tasting bread or waffle," Dodson said. "It's getting easier for people who must have gluten-free products to eat a varied diet without making everything from scratch. People are in a hurry and they want something ready to go."

"I think the big message with a gluten-free diet is the critical need to read and understand food labels," O'Dell said.


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