Gluten-free used to be something that food makers didn't brag about. The few products that were free of wheat or gluten would say so in small type on the back.
"In the consumer's mind, gluten-free meant 'It doesn't taste good,'" said Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
Now? Walk the aisles of any supermarket and "gluten-free" is shouting from the shelves. There are gluten-free products from Bisquick to Betty Crocker, soy sauce to ketchup -- even cosmetics.
"Now 'free' means 'it's better for you,'" Bast said.
A lot of people who don't have celiac disease and haven't been diagnosed with gluten-sensitivity are reaching for gluten-free products.
While 1 to 2 percent of the population has celiac disease and 6 to 8 percent have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivities, up to 25 percent of Americans are eating gluten-free without being diagnosed and 69 percent are trying gluten-free products, according to the foundation.
Even in the middle of an economic slowdown, the gluten-free industry has grown 30 percent, the foundation said. It's expected to hit $2.6 billion this year and $5 billion by 2015.
"We have our sports figures saying their athletic prowess is better on a gluten-free diet," Bast said. "And then you have the Gwyneth [Paltrows] and the Victoria Beckhams saying, 'I buy gluten-free -- it keeps me slender.'"
But while the trend is making it easier for people with celiac disease, it's also bringing unwelcome changes -- more processed food, diet claims that aren't proven and the risk of "gluten-free" menus that don't live up to the name.
"It reminds me of the no-fat thing with Snackwells [nonfat cookies]," said Barbara D'Ambrosio of the Thoughtful Baker, an allergen- and gluten-free baker in Charlotte, N.C. "It's like everybody is getting on the gluten-free bandwagon."
Gluten-free supporters and marketers make many claims about weight loss and health. But health experts say people might lose weight or feel more energetic when they cut out gluten simply
because they are paying attention to what they eat. Or they're cooking more from scratch and using more fruits and vegetables because that's the easiest way to control what you eat.
Now that gluten-free products are expanding, that advantage might disappear. Gluten-free processed and convenience foods can be high in salt, sugar and starches. They also might be lower in fiber.
"It's certainly not a weight-loss thing if you're eating most of the products out there now," said Peter Reinhart, a baking expert and cookbook author who works for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. "If they're not loaded with sugar, they're loaded with starches that convert into body fat."
Reinhart isn't the first guy you'd think of for wheat-free products. He's famous for his work with bread and pizza. But his new book, coming out in August, is "The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking."
Using nut flours, Splenda and stevia, Reinhart and co-author Denene Wallace came up with 80 recipes for breads, cookies and cakes that are easy enough for home bakers and that address a couple of health issues, including celiac disease and diabetes.
Reinhart lost weight when he started working on the book. But he's quick to point out that just cutting out gluten doesn't make for easy weight loss.
"These are not 'diet' foods," he said. "They're not low-calorie products."
There are positives to the interest in gluten-free products, of course. D'Ambrosio likes that some products have been changed in ways that improve them. For instance, corn tortillas or rice-based cereals could have been gluten-free all along, if they were made in a gluten-free facility.
D'Ambrosio, who is not gluten-intolerant, bakes for her customers in a home kitchen that is certified allergen-free. She uses separate pans and even separate mixing bowls for highly allergic customers. With the gluten-free market growing so large, she worries, not all businesses will be that careful.
That's a valid concern, Bast said.
"A lot [of restaurants] are saying they do it, but they don't understand cross-contamination," she said. "They'll remove the croutons from the salad, but they'll use the knife from the bread to cut the baked potato. And that little bit [of gluten] can be poison to someone with celiac disease."
Bast's foundation emphasizes the importance of getting a diagnosis before you go gluten-free. For one thing, if you avoid gluten and then get tested, you might not get a true result from the test.
If you have been diagnosed, you can see it as an opportunity to learn new ways of cooking, Bast said. The interest in gluten-free cooking might push food makers into exploring new ingredients.
"Until you have the consumers, changes are not going to be made," she said. "It was just 1 percent of us. Now that it's 15 or 25 percent, we count."