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Have you noticed? The gluten is missing. Entire aisles in grocery stores and separate listings on restaurant menus promise food that is gluten-free, just waiting to be grabbed up by the growing number of consumers who are gluten intolerant.

If you are a person who loves the likes of pizza, cookies, bread and beer, you might wonder what the big fuss is. Yet the world of gluten awareness is big enough to inspire support groups, special cooking classes, cookbooks, gluten-free summer camps. And skeptics.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. For most people it's a good thing.

"Gluten is the quality people love that makes the flaky pastry and the beautiful bread," said Jennifer Iscol of Sebastopol. "Wheat is one of the crops that feed the world. Wheat doesn't harm people who can digest it."

Iscol might be called the local doyenne of gluten. She's made gluten identification her cause since a member of her family was diagnosed with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease whose sufferers can't abide gluten.

But that's only one end of the spectrum.

At the other end, she said, are "people who don't feel well after they eat gluten." They have what is known as gluten sensitivity. In the middle is wheat allergy.

Iscol's website, www.northbayceliacs.org speaks to the full range of the gluten-averse with lists of classes, support meetings and an update on local restaurants and grocery stores that have gone gluten-free. Recent mentions include gluten-free flour developed at the French Laundry, a gluten-free sauce by Guy Fieri and gluten-free grapeseed flour from Kendall Jackson winery.

Iscol gives talks on gluten intolerance to consumer and health groups throughout California and last year met with representatives of the Food and Drug Administration in Washington D.C. to advocate for improved food labeling.

Dr. Al Haas, head of the allergy department at Kaiser Permanente health-care plan in Santa Rosa, said the number of people calling themselves gluten sensitive is "skyrocketing." Why, he's not sure.

"I believe there is a fad element to it," he said. "I believe there is some validity to it. I really don't know. And nobody does."

Gluten sensitivity, celiac disease and wheat allergy are "separate entities," he said, which "altogether are known as gluten intolerance. "A wheat allergy can cause gastrointestinal problems but also skin symptoms and respiratory symptoms. Reaction to it is immediate. You don't get chronic symptoms from a wheat allergy."

Celiac disease, he said, is also well-defined and is typically evaluated by a gastroenterologist using a blood test.

But with gluten sensitivity, the least understood of the three, said Haas, "the symptoms are non-specific, even though just about everything has been blamed on it. For the most part it's abdominal but it can also be tiredness, headaches, musculoskeletal. Even autism and schizophrenia have been named."

Unlike celiac disease and wheat allergy, there is no good test for gluten sensitivity "other than do you feel better when you don't eat wheat," said Haas. "And that's an imperfect measure because there can be many other factors involved in whether you feel good or not on a given day."

With little hard data, he said, "it's an area ripe for theorizing and hypothesizing."

One theory, said Iscol, is that more people are becoming gluten-sensitive because the agricultural industry is cultivating "species of wheat that has the highest gluten content, higher than it used to be."

Gluten intolerance, she said, "is at the intersection of food, medicine, agriculture and food labeling issues so it's also political." And, she said, even though gluten-free products are hot, "some people, maybe your doctor, your friends, don't take it seriously. This can be irksome but could also be dangerous."

Meanwhile, figuring out what to eat can be tricky.

Menu planning at Iscol's house must take into account one child's celiac disease and another child's gluten sensitivity. Iscol is also gluten-sensitive but her husband can eat all the gluten he wants.

They eat a lot of corn products, Mexican food, fresh vegetables, gluten-free bread and quinoa, a gluten-free grain.

Jennifer Torrey teaches gluten-free cooking classes at her Bennett Valley home and through the City of Santa Rosa Parks and Recreation department. Torrey puts herself in the gluten-sensitive category.

"That means if I eat something with gluten I may have to find the Pepto Bismol or the Imodium," she said, for stomach upset or diarrhea.

Hers is a mild reaction compared to a relative with celiac disease, who gulped a handful of cheese crackers and "was in bed for three days in a fetal position."

"All our comfort foods, all that is microwavable has gluten in it," said Torrey, who yet insists it's not difficult to find tasty, healthy substitutes.

"There is life beyond steak and potatoes," she said, referring to two safe staples on a gluten-free diet.

Her recipes include an English-muffin-style hamburger bun, sauces that use arrowroot or cornstarch instead of flour and gluten-free gnocchi.

For bread, Torrey favors a gluten-free loaf made out of rice flour, chia seeds and millet but confesses to an occasional craving for sourdough French bread.

"Sometimes I'll pick up the bread basket, pull back the napkin, take a whiff and then hand it around. I feel satiated," she said.

There's also not a lot of gluten-free imbibing. No scotch, rye, whiskey, or beer - and only vodka only made from potatoes.

"Wine, thank God, is okay," said Torrey.

Allergist Haas attributes part of the anti-gluten bandwagon to media awareness.

"We are suggestible people and we don't know how much is suggestible," he said. "We'll see how many people in 10 years are still avoiding gluten. Or maybe something else will come up that explains one of our non-specific symptoms."

But he's sympathetic to patients who want to blame gluten.

"If someone tells me his joints hurt or he gets headaches and he suspects gluten, I might suggest he eliminate wheat and see how he feels. Eliminate it for a week and then add back lots for a week. If it's a subtle difference I might say, forget about it. Life is short. If it's a big difference, then give it up."

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.

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