Is modern wheat making you sensitive to gluten?

Take a trip to your local supermarket and you're bound to see an entire section devoted to gluten-free products. Once the exclusive domain of people with celiac disease, the trend towards gluten-free wheat has quickly become all the rage. So, what's to account for all this?

As researchers from the Mayo Clinic have recently pointed out, it may have something to do with high-tech wheat that was developed in the 1950s and the subsequent rise of "gluten sensitivity".

Gluten, a protein that's found in bread and other foods, has to be avoided by people with celiac on account of their inability to properly digest it. The protein damages the lining of the small intestine, so foods like pasta, oats, and even beer have to be avoided. It's typically added to other kinds of foods to help dough rise and give baked goods their structure and texture.

Concerned about the rising rates of celiac in the general public and the popularity of gluten-free food products, researchers Joseph Murray and James Everhart compiled a thorough survey to get a definitive answer. What they discovered was that about 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, and that another 1.4 million are likely undiagnosed. And surprisingly, another 1.6 million have adopted a gluten-free diet despite having no diagnosis. In fact, their study indicated that most persons who were following a gluten-free diet did not even have a diagnosis.

As CBS News points out, the burgeoning desire to avoid gluten may having something to do with the state of today's wheat and the rise of "gluten sensitivity":

In the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make hardier, shorter and better-growing plants. It was the basis of the Green Revolution that boosted wheat harvests worldwide. Norman Borlaug, the U.S. plant scientist behind many of the innovations, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. But the gluten in wheat may have somehow become even more troublesome for many people, Murray said. That also may have contributed to what is now called "gluten sensitivity."

Doctors recently developed an ambiguous definition for gluten sensitivity. It's a label for people who suffer bloating and other celiac symptoms and seem to be helped by avoiding gluten, but don't actually have celiac disease. Celiac disease is diagnosed with blood testing, genetic testing, or biopsies of the small intestine.

The case for gluten sensitivity was bolstered last year by a very small but often-cited Australian study. Volunteers who had symptoms were put on a gluten-free diet or a regular diet for six weeks, and they weren't told which one. Those who didn't eat gluten had fewer problems with bloating, tiredness and irregular bowel movements.

Clearly, "there are patients who are gluten-sensitive," said Dr. Sheila Crowe, a San Diego-based physician on the board of the American Gastroenterological Association.

What is hotly debated is how many people have the problem, she added. It's impossible to know "because the definition is nebulous," she said.

Gluten-free diets are also being used as a way to lose weight, or as part of low carb and paleo diets. There has also been increasing concern that all people have some kind of gluten sensitivity.

And as the CBS article indicates, this is quickly turning into big business, with an estimated $7 billion being spent on gluten-free foods this year.

You can hit the entire study at The American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Image Dejan Stanisavljevic/Shutterstock.com.