Gluten free drives a new mini-industry

It's been linked to bowel damage, food intolerance and allergies, giving it a place in the rogues gallery of dietary villains.

Gluten, the stuff that gives dough its "elastic" character, sounds benign enough.

It's a wheat-based protein found in bread, cakes and pasta, as well as a vast array of processed foods.

Gluten is also found in oats, barley, some yoghurt, most sauces, oven chips, canned soups, lollies and beer. It is a common ingredient in commercial thickeners.

But although gluten is contained in many of our every day foodstuffs, many people can't safely consume it.

In people with the metabolic disorder coeliac disease, gluten damages the small intestine, reducing the body's ability to absorb nutrients and leaving sufferers at risk of a variety of illness including osteoporosis and cancer.

According to the NSW Coeliac Society, around 250,000 Australians have the condition, up from previous estimates of 25,000 just ten years ago. Four out of every five of those have never been diagnosed.

NSW Coeliac Society president Graham Price says

membership of the society is growing by about 15 per cent each year, largely because of improved diagnostic testing.

While membership is exclusive (you need a doctor's certificate to join), he says thousands more people suffer from gluten-related complaints, ranging from eczema to the medically undefined gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.

Gluten intolerance causes the same symptoms as coeliac disease, including bloating, wind, vomiting and rashes, but does not damage the bowel.

At present, the only treatment for these conditions is to totally eliminate gluten from the diet.

This is where gluten becomes big business - and it's generated a whole new mini-industry of gluten free products.

Supermarket giant Coles has a dedicated line of gluten-free products. Sugar refiner CSR has introduced gluten-free sugars and Four'n'Twenty pie-maker Patties Foods has added gluten-free pies, sausages rolls, bread and cakes to its product list.

You can even organise gluten-free holidays thanks to a growing number of hotels and airlines offering gluten-friendly menu choices.

And organisers say an estimated 10,000 people attended the recent Gluten Free Gourmet Expo at the Sydney Showground, with queues gathering outside before the doors had opened.

The range and quality of gluten-free food has expanded enormously, says Price, who has headed the NSW branch of the coeliac society for five years.

"One of the ladies here says when she was diagnosed 30 years ago, she used to have to get her bread mailed to her at the railway station and then had to go and pick it up," he says.

But some nutritionists say the bandwagon effect is also driving the gluten-free market.

The market has been boosted by a number of people who are treating gluten-free like the latest dietary fad, nutritionist Catherine Saxelby says.

"There's another whole market of people out there, that put themselves on a particular wheat-free diet for a variety of reasons," she says.

"For those people, it's a fad and I think a lot of naturopaths tell people to give up wheat and dairy ... it's an alternative philosophy."

Sydney man Michael Head, 31, was medically diagnosed with coeliac disease almost five years ago.

He says the illness changed his life.

"For me, it's just the convenience factor ... I tried to keep everything as normal, going out with friends etcetera, but I noticed I was still having a lot of problems," he says.

Instead of grabbing a takeaway lunch, he now prepares his meal the night before. And he's used to putting up with the jibes from his mates when he chooses a glass of wine instead of a beer.

"I kind of get upset with people who say 'Yeah, I'm gluten-free too' and you say 'Well, that's a choice'," he says.

"If they fall off the wagon and have a massive pizza and a few beers, it's fine."

Medical experts are still learning about coeliac disease, which was once believed to only affect children.

Despite affecting one per cent of Australia's population, coeliac disease receives very little research funding, says gastroenterologist Robert Anderson.

Anderson, who runs one of Australia's only two coeliac disease clinics, says the medical establishment and the general community are only just starting to take the disease seriously.

"Fundamentally, it has not been a priority ... we're only in the beginning stages now and working on improvements in diagnosing, not prevention," he says.

While a cure is a long way off, Anderson and his team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, have developed a preventative vaccine. He hopes to begin clinical trials next year pending funding.

Anderson estimates a gluten-free diet costs about $1,000 extra a year, and although it is the only form of treatment, there is no government subsidy in Australia, unlike Italy, Finland, England and New Zealand.

He says gluten free foods should be subsidised or at least treated in the same way as prescription drugs for high blood pressure or cholesterol, which are on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

"The cost of gluten-free food should be regarded as a one-year prescription for a blood pressure or a cholesterol drug," he says.

Failing that, gluten-free beer should be provided on tap at every pub, according to Michael head.

"I've tried that beer, it's not too bad," he says.

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