Kicking the gluten habit

Over the years, Dr. Michael Komar has seen first-hand how patients struggle with celiac disease.

Symptoms of the autoimmune disorder often are triggered by gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other selected grains.

“I think for the most part we are recognizing that more people have celiac disease than we first thought,” said Komar, a Geisinger Medical Center gastroentrologist.

Under new federal Food and Drug Administration regulations, all products labeled gluten-free must contain less than 20 parts per million of the protein.

Over the last 10, years that figure was adopted by the World Health Organization and put in practice by a number of nations.

Komar said he’s happy to see the new regulations.

While gluten-free products comprise by some estimates a $4.2 billion market, there has until now been no standard for recognizing them.

In other words, the gluten-free labels on products have been placed there as more of a good-faith decision by food companies.

An estimated 3 million people in the U.S. suffer from celiac disease.

For those with the disease, the smallest intake of gluten can trigger a production of antibodies that damage the lining of the small intestine.

Among the health risks associated with celiac disease are intestinal cancers, osteoporosis and infertility.

Damage to the small intestine lining prevents absorption of certain nutrients which can cause stomach pain and affect growth and development in children.

Komar noted that symptoms of celiac disease include bloating, diarrhea, flatulence1 and weight loss.

“Some people don’t have celiac disease but have some other type of gluten sensitivity,” he said.

At the same time, it’s likely, he said, for some people to exhibit very mild symptoms of celiac disease and not get diagnosed.

Overall, more people than ever seem to have celiac disease, but that could possibly be attributed to a better overall awareness of the problem.

A blood test is commonly used to reveal a positive diagnosis for celiac disease.

“We can also do a biopsy of the small intestine for confirmation,” Komar added.

A blood test will look for antibodies that show the immune system’s response to gluten in the diet.

Komar noted that patients found to have celiac disease should watch their gluten intake.

And, they should consult with dietitians who can be part of a medical team approach for helping them deal with celiac disease, he said.

There exists no cure for celiac disease, but a gluten-free diet can manage symptoms and promote intestinal healing.

Food companies have until August 2014 to meet the FDA labeling guidelines.