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Gluten-Free: The Low-Carb of This Decade?

Peter Dazeley/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- "Gluten-free" is fast becoming the "low-carb" diet trend of the 21st century, although only 10 percent of the people buying its foods suffer from the celiac disease, wheat allergy or "gluten sensitivity" that make gluten avoidance a medical-must.

The burgeoning gluten-free marketplace has been a boon to men and women whose good health depends upon keeping gluten out of their gullets.

Today, gluten-free staples, frozen meals and snacks fill aisles of supermarkets that years ago might have stocked only a paltry collection of cardboard-y rice crackers and wheat-free cookies.

Last year, Americans spent $2.64 billion on foods and beverages without gluten, up from $210 million in 2001, according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based market research firm. The number of food and beverage packages with gluten-free package claims or tags rose from fewer than 1,000 at the end of 2006 to 2,600 by 2010.

The target market for sufferers of three types of gluten-related disorders is significant. An estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease, a life-threatening immune disorder triggered by the consumption of a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Celiac disease is considered genetic, but can strike at any time of life when genetic and environmental influences intersect. Only about 200,000 Americans have been diagnosed. Another 300,000 to 400,000 Americans have wheat allergies, which could kill them if they inadvertently ingested wheat products that swell their airways shut.

The biggest of these potential pools lies with those plagued by an emerging, but not fully delineated "gluten sensitivity" which Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, in a study published in March, estimated could be as many as 20 million people.

Even though gluten-free diets initially were an accommodation to celiac disease and wheat allergies, the marketplace has changed. Today, 90 percent of people whose eschew gluten do so "just as a food fad, or as a weight reduction thing," said Dr. Peter H.R. Green, director of Columbia University's Celiac Disease Center in New York. "Only 10 percent are doing it because they think it's helping their condition."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio