Living life gluten-free

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When was the last time you heard the words gluten-free? Read it on a box?

Research company Mintel predicts gluten-free product sales will hit about $15 billion dollars nationwide by 2016.

Compare that with $10.5 billion dollars in 2013. To understand the spike in gluten-free sales, we first need to know what gluten is.

Ashley Short, a Clinical Dietitian with Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Center, defines it in simple terms.

"Gluten is a protein that's found in wheat, barley and rye," Short said.

She says there are two big reasons why people do not eat gluten. The first is a food allergy. These people cannot handle gluten in their bodies. For some it is serious enough to be diagnosed as a condition called Celiac Disease.

"People that have Celiac Disease are intolerant to that protein and it causes damage in the small intestine," Short added.

When people with Celiac Disease eat gluten, it causes among other things abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss and even skin rashes.

"I had rashes all over me, bruises all over me," said Jennifer Cropp. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease six years ago.

"I stopped eating it, went back and had a checkup and lost 25 pounds instantly like that," she said.

Cropp's body bloats up when she gluten - at one point she was 278 pounds. Her digestive system cannot break down the gluten protein.

She says she was embarrassed at first - having to look at all the food labels. Now she swears by it.

"If you don't even understand what an ingredient is don't bother with it because it's not worth it," she said.

Going to the store has become easier. Mega Foods, Gordy's and Festival Foods are among the local grocery stores in Eau Claire that carry gluten-free products.

Leah Anderson, Festival Foods' Food Safety and Nutrition Manager, says annually their gluten-free selection grows by about 25% to 30%.

"We've seen a great increase in demand for gluten-free products at Festival," she said.

That has meant more food options for someone like Cropp and others with Celiac Disease.

Others trying to lose weight and live healthier have also turned to gluten-free products. But is a gluten-free diet a good way to lose weight and live healthier if you do not have Celiac Disease?

"I don't personally think it's necessary," Short said.

Experts we talked to say no.

"I think people get the misconception that it's gonna help with weight loss and a general healthier way of eating overall which is not necessarily the case," she added.

If you do not have Celiac Disease, Short says there are no health benefits to eating products engineered to be gluten-free. She says those foods usually have more calories and fat.

Leah Anderson is also a dietitian. She too is cautious about recommending gluten-free products to those who want to lose weight, be healthier and do not have Celiac Disease.

She says if you want to avoid gluten in your diet, do it the natural way.

"I would recommend eating things that are naturally gluten-free like fresh fruits and veggies, fruits and veggies that are canned or frozen, eggs, rice the list kind of goes on," she said.

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