Julie Jargon | The Gluten-Free Craze: Is It Healthy?

A decade ago, few Americans had heard of gluten. Today, one survey says, almost a third are trying to avoid the element found in grain. In growing numbers, the world’s biggest food makers and restaurant chains are retooling recipes and labels to tap into the concern, creating a multibillion-dollar business out of gluten-free products.

The trend caught the eye of Heather Nutsch, an oncology researcher in Omaha, Neb., who has struggled with her weight for years. In February, she decided to try a gluten-free diet after a friend said it helped her lose weight. “Gluten-free is everywhere,” she said.

Yet gluten-free lovers of the world may be in for a surprise. Many health experts say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free except for a small sliver of the population whose bodies can’t process the protein. Indeed, according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar. It is a point some food makers don’t dispute, saying they are simply responding to consumer demand without making health claims.

“I have no idea,” said Donnie Smith, the CEO of Tyson Foods Inc., TSN -0.47% when asked if gluten-free was healthier for most people. The food giant last year rolled out gluten-free chicken nuggets, lunch meat and even bacon.

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