For more than 20 years, Kristine Kidd tasted what came her way as the food editor at Bon Appetit magazine. But she never felt great.
“I had digestive issues my whole life,” she says, but 2 1/2 years ago, the aching joints, bloating, fatigue and digestive problems became so severe she couldn’t ignore the symptoms of celiac disease.
She had already left her job and started doing some research, she says in the roomy, sunny kitchen of her hilltop home in Topanga Canyon, Calif.
“I was so miserable. And as soon as I went gluten-free, the symptoms started to subside,” she adds, as she prepared shrimp in tomato sauce over polenta, a recipe from her book, Weeknight Gluten Free. In four months, she felt healthy.
Living a gluten-free life has become easier now that the conditions underlying the intolerance can be diagnosed. There are hundreds upon hundreds of products available, as well as a growing number of restaurants willing to accommodate diners who avoid gluten.
But easier doesn’t mean easy. One wrong bite can mean a week feeling lousy.
“I’m happy that I don’t feel like I’m dying, but … I’m still angry and resentful,” says Carol Blymire, a writer in Washington, D.C., who for a time wrote the blog “Gluten for Punishment.”
She’s not alone. It is estimated that 1 percent of the population has celiac disease and a greater number of people suffer from wheat allergies or are gluten-intolerant, says Melissa Dennis, the nutrition coordinator at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. In addition, consumer research from the NPD Group suggests that nearly one-third of Americans want to reduce or eliminate the gluten in their diets.
Thanks are due in part to the Paleo, low-carb and “wheat belly” diets, to the never-ending desire to lose weight (though a gluten-free diet is no guarantee of that) and to celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow. Saturday Night Live poked fun of going gluten-free as a “made up allergy that you invented to get attention” — just the sort of joke to make the celiac community cringe.
“Gluten-free has maintained this steady growth, but it has shifted in the reason why so many consumers are interested,” says Melissa Abbott, senior director, culinary insights at the market research firm Hartman Group. “Consumers don’t even know why they’re doing it often.”
That can be a little annoying to people who have no choice.
“Part of me resents them because they’ll go to restaurants and say everything has to be gluten-free, then nibble on their friends’ bread,” says Blymire, whose condition means she needs to avoid using even a shared microwave oven. “I’ve gotten accidentally ‘glutened’ six or seven times, and it’s excruciating.”
Nonetheless, consumer desires, and dollars, mean that the list of gluten-free foods, which include quinoa pasta, brown rice cereals and mung bean noodles, continues to grow. Evol makes burritos and other frozen entrees without gluten. Blue Diamond makes rice-and-almond crackers. Way Better Snacks produces chips with corn, flax and chia seeds.
Udi’s, the big player in the gluten-free kitchen, has grown in the last three years from $6 million in sales to an expected $130 million this year, says its vice president of marketing, Denise Sirovatka. Its whole grain sandwich bread is its biggest seller, and a frozen baguette has just been launched in limited distribution.