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Wheat is not my friend

I gained 25 pounds within a month of taking gluten out of my diet. When this photo was taken, I weighed well under 100 pounds.

I won’t get into the uncomfortable details about how my body reacts when I eat a slice of birthday cake or a cinnamon roll or spaghetti and meatballs.  But in this picture of me from 2002, before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, you can perhaps see the results. The gluten in wheat, barley and rye makes me starve, no matter how much I eat.

I had never heard of celiac disease before I was diagnosed nearly nine years ago. Strangely enough, that was roughly the starting point for growing celiac/gluten awareness in the U.S.

It has been quite handy that the gluten-free market perked up just when I needed it. Nearly 1,000 gluten-free food and beverage products were introduced in 2006; by 2010, it was about 2,600 (Source: Packaged Facts).

But as someone who lives with this eating and shopping burden, I have to tell you — it’s not enough. Many of these new products are sad substitutes for wheat-based products (though some are amazing). And they are mighty expensive.

So I take quite personal interest in Harvest reporter Eric Durban’s story on the potential of sorghum as a gluten-free flour, “A gluten-free opportunity for Kansas sorghum.”  I can attest to the need – or desire, at least – for an easy-to-use gluten-free flour that doesn’t have significant negatives such as graininess or heaviness or pricy-ness. (At the grocery story last night, I paid $7 for a small loaf of frozen bread, primarily made of rice flour.)

The research could have big payoffs for Kansas farmers, who could see sorghum used more often as the basis for gluten-free snack foods, noodles, pasta, waffles and other products.  Packaged Facts estimates that the gluten-free market will reach $5.47 billion in sales in 2015, up from $2.64 billion in 2010. That forecast actually incorporates a slowdown in the market growth from 25 percent this year to only 10 percent by 2014.  I was quite happy to see that part of the reason Packaged Facts points to a market slowdown is “falling prices due to a greater presence of these items in mass outlets.”

It's not just celiacs who are buying gluten-free foods, according to Baking Management magazine. Consumer research firm The Hartman Group found that 93 percent of people following a gluten-free diet don't actually have celiac disease. Instead, they may have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, they may live in a household with a celiac sufferer, or they just feel that eliminating gluten is a more healthful choice (example: U.S. Open Tennis champion Novak Djokovic).

I believe that’s what makes the gluten-free mantra — be it a fad or a life sentence for the individual consumer — so fascinating.  For celiacs, the food and health connection is clear, of course. Be we also can see the connection between what the market demands and what farmers produce, plus the research behind the products. This market is advancing quickly. And now it’s playing out in the grain fields of Kansas.

But alas, until we get that amazing sorghum (or other) breakthrough, I’m still dreaming about my old friend, wheat ... and those Krispy Kreme Doughnuts