Consumers Eat Up Gluten-Free Trend, Nutrition Lessons Served on the Side

Mary's CrackersThe gluten-free industry is pegged at more than $23 billion a year - with sales up more than 16 percent over the past year. The lure of that market share means gluten-free products are common on store shelves.

Mary Waldner founded Mary's Gone Crackers more than 10 years ago to sell the snacks she made at home as she dealt with celiac disease. She welcomes more options for people with the disease and those who are sensitive to gluten, but she says the "gluten-free" label can blur the line for consumers when it comes to nutrition.

"I think so many gluten-free companies, they don't care what's in the food," she said. "I see it as an opportunity to really look at our food and see what's in it, and not replace it with gluten-free junk."

Many gluten-free foods are high in sugar and fats to improve the taste. Waldner's crackers and pretzels are made from whole grains and seeds - without added sugars and fats. Her cookies are made with whole grains and sweetened with coconut palm sugar.

Gluten-free is often characterized as a diet trend. Waldner said she thinks it's here to stay, whether or not the food choices are made because of a doctor's note. The public is learning that decades of eating processed foods come at a cost, she said, all because of the awareness of gluten.

"Our guts are in bad shape," she said. "We're eating such highly refined foods. We have been doing damage to our digestive system, and I think wheat is a very hard thing to digest."

About one in every 133 people has celiac disease. Waldner said most people, like her, don't find out for years why they're so sick. She said she also suspects that celiac testing sometimes misses cases, or that there may be other types of gluten-related problems that can't be verified with available testing.

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