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New Questions for Autism Diets

A report published just this week in the medical journal Pediatrics concludes that special diets are not effective in treating digestive problems in children with autism.

Try telling that to all the parents and caretakers who swear that modifying the diet of an autistic child can reduce or even eliminate behavior outbursts that many believe are caused by painful digestive upsets.

Among the top suspects on the list is gluten. According to Packaged Facts, supermarkets have quickly become one of the biggest channels for moving gluten-free products. Sales are expected to grow by double digits and hit $2.6 billion by 2012. At the trade shows I attend, there’s an ever-expanding list of gluten-free foods ready for market (prompting some to ask whether there’s a gluten-free “bubble” about to burst), and some retailers are highlighting gluten-free foods to differentiate themselves from competitors.

“This is really a growing, large population, and they’re a tight-knit group,” is how one dietitian we spoke with characterized gluten-free shoppers.

According to an Associated Press report, one in 5 autistic kids is currently on a special diet in which gluten and casein (a dairy protein) are eliminated. Another statistic: an estimated one in 110 children in the United States is classified as autistic.

With numbers like that, you can be sure that at least some of the parents are shopping in your stores for special foods. And it’s not just those dealing with autism. Today’s gluten-free consumer includes those suffering from arthritis, multiple sclerosis and eczema.

Do you stock gluten-free products? Are they easy to find? Is your staff nutritionist or dietitian aware of the report, and the controversy in general?

As special diet items become a larger part of mainstream supermarkets, retailers need to keep up with the science. The study calls for more in-depth research to determine the extent of poor digestion. You can be sure parents and caretakers will be following the topic with intense interest. The AP story quoted one Mom as saying she was happy the medical establishment is addressing the issue.

"I'm filled with hope after reading this report," Rebecca Estepp told the AP. "I wish this report would have come out 10 years ago when my son was diagnosed."