It is estimated that around 18 million people in the United States are sensitive or allergic to gluten to some degree. Gluten is the “gluey” protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is hard to digest and can cause a variety of digestive ailments and discomfort.

For the three million people with celiac disease which can be life threatening, their autoimmune dysfunction is treated by eliminating gluten. With so many people suffering in one way or another, awareness of problem is becoming more high profile. Sales of gluten free products are soaring despite the products generally being more costly and the economy still weak. Generally rice, corn, potato, soy and other flours are used as a replacement for wheat in bread, pastry, cookies etc. but small production quantities and slightly more involved cooking techniques keep the prices elevated above mass produced wheat products.

Celebrities including 2011 U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic, Chelsea Clinton and TV host Elisabeth Hasselbeck are increasing getting behind the campaign to make gluten free products more widely available. Raising awareness about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity helps to drive product demand and even a person who has mild wind or bloating might benefit from cutting out or simply cutting down their gluten intake.

In one example of the increasing demand, Los Angeles based voice actor Nancy Truman found herself in a new role as a full time baker of gluten free products after she began cooking for herself to cut out the gluten that was giving her digestive difficulties.

Truman went into business partnership with her neighbor to Waylynn Lucas, one of Los Angeles’ most celebrated pastry chefs, who is also a fan of her gluten-free goodies. They opened a new coffee shop called Fonuts which aims to sell healthier treats such as doughnuts that are baked not fried. Gluten-free alternatives make up more than half of their sales.

Its hard to avoid gluten and the traditional popularity of wheat is partly down to the ease of cooking with it due to the ‘gluey’ gluten that holds, breads, pastries and pastas together with more vigor. It can even be found in some lipsticks, MacDonald’s French fries, some medicines and of course beer being generally made from barely is another product that contains gluten.

Euromonitor International predicts 2011 gluten-free sales of $1.31 billion in the United States and $2.67 billion worldwide. Sales have more than doubled since 2005 and charted to reach nearly $1.7 billion in the United States and $3.38 billion globally by 2015.

Ewa Hudson, Euromonitor International’s head of health and wellness research confirms :

“Consumers do feel some sort of reward when they eat gluten-free products. They don’t feel bloated. They don’t have belly aches. This usually encourages them to repeat the purchase,”

For those who have been suffering from gluten intolerance for many years, the difficulties of finding tasty products while avoiding the wheat staple, might be coming to an end. Although Europe and Australia are ahead in terms of testing for celiac disease and general awareness of gluten intolerance some big US companies have finally woken up to consumer demand.

These include :

– General Mills changing recipes for Chex breakfast cereals, Betty Crocker cake and brownie mixes and Bisquick pancake mix.

– The brewer Anheuser Busch Inbev SA now has a gluten free beer called Redbridge available in major supermarkets.

– China Bistro has a gluten free menu

– Subway is starting to test gluten free menus in Texas and Oregon

Other celebrities jumping on the bandwagon include Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow and critics have started to point out that gluten free is becoming a fad to some extent. Alessio Fasano medical director of University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research thinks that around half the gluten free sales are not for medical reasons. However with athletes using gluten free diets for enhance performance, it would seem that almost anyone can benefit from increased energy levels by giving their body a break from digesting the “gluey” gluten.

Rupert Shepherd reporting for Medical News