Celiac.com 10/07/2008 - Even though nearly 1 out of every 100 people in the world suffers from celiac disease, proper celiac diagnosis can be difficult to diagnose based on symptoms alone, an is often delayed for years. In fact, in the U.S., the average amount of time from first onset of celiac symptoms to a diagnosis for celiac disease is 10 years.

Currently, the only accepted treatment for celiac disease is a life-long gluten-free diet. However, gluten is present in many processed foods, and many patients with celiac disease are regularly exposed to trace amounts of gluten via contamination and other means.

One of the challenges of maintaining a life-long diet free of gluten is that so many foods and food products contain gluten. Examples include dried fruit and fruit pie fillings, cold cuts, sandwich spreads, canned meats, many salad dressings and condiments, prepared soups, flavored yogurt, and even flavored instant coffees and herbal teas.

Following a “strict” gluten-free diet is no guarantee against mucosal damage associated with celiac disease. In two different studies of gluten-free diets, nearly half of the subjects showed villous atrophy. However, the precise level of gluten in each diet was not measured.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines naturally gluten-free foods as those with 20 parts of gluten per million (PPM) or less, whereas foods that have been artificially rendered gluten-free must have no more than 200 PPM of gluten. Now, this standard is not universally accepted, in part because of the difficulty of precisely determining the amount of gluten present in different foods. Still, it is obvious that a large number of patients with celiac disease can tolerate foods with minimal amounts of gluten.

Researchers A. K. Akobeng, and A. G. Thomas recently set out to examine the threshold for gluten consumption among patients with celiac disease by reviewing the results of a number of previous studies.

In one previous study, researchers examined 4,126 asymptomatic individuals, and found celiac disease in about 1 of 133 of them. The rate for patients with gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms was 1 in 56 subjects. For first-degree relatives of patients with celiac disease, the rate jumped to 1 in 22, while 1 in 39 second-degree relatives tested positive for celiac disease. These figures reflect the existence of a genetic predisposition for the development of celiac disease, as most patients who have celiac disease expressing human leukocyte antigen DQ2 or DQ8 haplotypes.

One population-based study of 1,612 patients with celiac disease that sheds some light on the demographics and symptoms of the disease shows that nearly three times as many women as men develop celiac disease, while about a third of celiac sufferers had seen 2 or more gastroenterologists. In that study, symptoms persisted for an average of 11 years before a diagnosis of celiac disease.

Often, such delays are due to the fact that symptoms of celiac disease are similar to many common GI disorders. In addition to the diarrhea experienced by 85% of celiac sufferers, other common symptoms are abdominal pain and distension, Borborygmi, flatulence, and weight loss. Because celiac disease is tied to numerous medical conditions outside of the GI tract, including osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anemia, neuropathy, asthma, and dermatitis herpetiformis, early and accurate diagnosis is important.

When people with celiac disease eat wheat, rye, or barley, the gluten proteins in these grains sparks inflammation in a part of the small intestine called the