An estimated 25 million Americans are living gluten-free, with three million people suffering from celiac disease and millions more diagnosed with non-celiac gluten intolerance or wheat allergies. Many others adopt a gluten-free diet to combat a variety of other health concerns. Since May is National Celiac Awareness Month, DrexelNow spoke with Genevieve Sherrow, an adjunct faculty member in Drexel’s Goodwin College of Professional Studies who teaches gluten-free cooking and baking in the Culinary, Food Science and Hospitality Management program, to find out more about this serious health concern and why it seems to be on the rise.
What is celiac disease? What are the symptoms?
Celiac disease is a permanent autoimmune disease triggered by gluten in genetically predisposed individuals. Thirty to 40 percent of the population possess the genes for celiac. What determines whether or not someone will get celiac is unknown, but it seems to be linked to an environmental trigger like a virus, infection or stress. Common symptoms include fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, neurological problems and joint pain. Undiagnosed and untreated celiac can result in osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anemia, cancer, other autoimmune diseases, heart disease and infertility. Celiac can manifest at any point in an individual’s lifetime. The only treatment that exists for celiac disease is a lifelong adherence to the gluten-free diet.
Why does it seem like more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease?
There is more awareness of celiac disease in the general public. People are also paying more attention to food and nutrition and what makes them feel good and bad. There is also increased awareness in the medical community; doctors are receiving more education on celiac disease. More awareness means that rates of diagnosis are increasing, and that those who have been undiagnosed are being found. There is also evidence to suggest that recent cross-breeding and selective breeding of wheat increases the content of gluten, which does not bode well for people who have problems digesting wheat.
Why is going gluten-free so trendy right now?
The gluten-free diet is perceived by the public as a “healthier” diet. With all of the attention gluten-free eating is getting, and the explosion of the gluten-free products industry (estimated to hit $4.2 billion this year according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm), going gluten-free is becoming somewhat of a fad. Just like any fad diet, people believe that it will be the phenomena that will resolve whatever problem they have, such as weight gain or low energy. It has been marketed and touted as a weight-loss diet and a performance-enhancing diet, but there is no scientific evidence to validate this.
What are the benefits of going gluten-free?
For those with celiac disease, gluten-free diets are an indisputable medical necessity. Individuals who test negative for celiac but are sensitive to gluten and show improvement after eliminating gluten have “non-celiac gluten intolerance.” It’s estimated that 18 to 21 million Americans are affected by this.
While there is significant anecdotal evidence substantiating the benefits of gluten-free diets for conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis and hypothyroidism, scientific evidence continues to be varied. Future research may better define the benefits of the gluten-free diet for these conditions and others.
What can students expect from your gluten-free cooking and baking classes?
This quarter I am teaching Introduction to Gluten-Free Baking. It is offered as a special topics course in the culinary program. I also have non-majors in the class who have celiac and gluten intolerance and find it incredibly beneficial. We are making a wide variety of baked products such as cookies, muffins, cakes, yeasted breads, pie crusts and brunch food like pancakes, crepes and waffles.
Students have spent the quarter learning about how to work with gluten-free flour products made from whole grains, nuts and vegetables like brown rice, tapioca and potato starch, millet, quinoa and almond flour. Combining flours is the key in gluten-free baking to create perfectly textured, delicious products. They are also learning tactics involved with baking egg-free and dairy-free.