What you need to know before going gluten-free

It's the "in" thing -- virtually every possible product has a gluten-free option. There's gluten-free girl scout cookies, beer, gluten-free restaurant finders and even gluten-free dating sites.

Gluten-free is a $6.3 billion industry.

Amy Jones, owner of Gigi's Cupcakes in Kenwood offers gluten-free sweets on Fridays and Saturdays.

"I had a friend whose daughter had celiac and she had a really hard time finding good products," Jones said.

She says parents light up when they find out her store carries gluten-free food.

So, what exactly is it?

Gluten is a protein present in wheat, barley and rye. For one in 131 Americans, gluten can trigger celiac disease, which has immune response that can damage your stomach lining.

Dr. Nav Grandhi, director of the Tri-Health Digestive Institute explained the symptoms.

"Celiac disease is present with symptoms like diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, weakness, sometimes you have bone loss and iron deficiency," he said.

Dr. Grandhi said he is seeing more patients testing positive for celiac disease. The age span when most people are diagnosed is wide, between 10 and 40.

"That inflammation affects the small intestine which is the location where most nutrients are absorbed. If you don't have a healthy lining, that leads to nutrition deficiencies," Dr. Grandhi said.

A gluten-free diet isn't an option if you have celiac disease, it is medically necessary.

Bettina Adams, who shops at Whole Foods in Norwood, said she went to the doctor because she kept getting sick and had no idea why. She was diagnosed with celiac disease a year and a half ago. Adams makes the trip from Alexandria for the gluten-free selection at Whole Foods.

"It's not a diet fad, it's an actual serious medical problem. People can die from it and get so physically upset. I used to end up in the hospital every weekend,” Adams said.

Gluten online searches are trending higher each month as more people without celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity are going gluten-free to lose weight.

But, the calories and price don't add up.

"Gluten-free products are very high in calories, so you might be consuming the same amount of food, but you're getting more calories," Dr. Grandhi said.

Experts caution the gluten-free packaged foods because they have more sugar, sodium and fat, than their gluten-filled counter-parts.

An example is Van's Natural Foods whole grain blueberry waffles. The gluten-free waffle has 115 calories per waffle and 190 grams of sodium, while the organic has 80 calories and 155 grams of sodium.

Registered dietician Veena Grandhi counsels celiac and gluten-sensitive patients.

"Products that have gluten, like the wheat products, all have the B vitamins that you're typically missing if you go off them," Grandhi said.

Studies show that gluten-free foods cost on average 242 percent more than standard foods. The gluten-free Oreo-like cookies are about $6, compared to roughly $2 for a package of Oreos.

"It's definitely a fad, but it's going to be a costly fad in the long run," Grandhi said.

But for people with celiac disease, everyone going gluten-free is increasing the options tenfold.

If you're going gluten-free just because you want to, Harvard researchers say there's no benefit and you're wasting your money.

Some popular gluten-free apps:
• Find Me Gluten Free
• Is that Gluten Free
• Gluten Free Daily

READ MORE: Food and drinks to avoid when going gluten-free

Avoid all food and drinks containing:
• Barley (malt, malt flavoring and malt vinegar are usually made from barley)
• Rye
• Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)
• Wheat

Avoiding wheat can be challenging because wheat products go by numerous names. Consider the many types of wheat flour on supermarket shelves - bromated, enriched, phosphate, plain and self-rising. Other wheat products to avoid:

• Bulgur
• Durum flour
• Farina
• Graham flour
• Kamut
• Semolina
• Spelt

In general, avoid the following foods unless they're labeled as gluten-free or made with corn, rice, soy or other gluten-free grain:

• Beer
• Breads
• Cakes and pies
• Candies
• Cereals
• Cookies and crackers
• Croutons
• French fries
• Gravies
• Imitation meat or seafood
• Matzo
• Pastas
• Processed luncheon meats
• Salad dressings
• Sauces, including soy sauce
• Seasoned rice mixes
• Seasoned snack foods, such as potato and tortilla chips
• Self-basting poultry
• Soups and soup bases
• Vegetables in sauce

Many healthy and delicious foods are naturally gluten-free:

• Beans, seeds, nuts in their natural, unprocessed form
• Fresh eggs
• Fresh meats, fish and poultry (not breaded, batter-coated or marinated)
• Fruits and vegetables
• Most dairy products

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