LOS ANGELES Hostaria del Piccolo in Santa Monica serves spaghetti, penne and chocolate tortino without it. Dunkin' Donuts is developing a cinnamon-sugar doughnut free of the substance.
There are even wedding cakes, hand soaps and toothpastes with barely a trace.
The ingredient non grata is gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It allows breads to rise and binds ingredients together. So ubiquitous is the stabilizing compound that it can be found in ice cream, ketchup and deli meats.
For the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, a single bite of a food made with gluten can cause gastrointestinal distress that may take two weeks to resolve. But a growing number of Americans are shunning it, too, believing it will help them with digestive issues, skin and respiratory problems, weight loss, "brain fog," or just improve their general health.
With one-third of Americans trying to avoid the protein, the "gluten free" label holds increasing cachet. On Friday, the federal government issued an official definition of that claim, bringing a measure of uniformity to a burgeoning industry.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, a food or other substance can be labeled "gluten-free," "no gluten," "without gluten" or "free of gluten" if it contains less than 20 parts per million of it. Manufacturers have until Aug. 5, 2014, to comply with the new definition.
Hillary Kane, operations director at the Celiac Disease Foundation in Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, said the FDA action would greatly ease the lives of people with the autoimmune disorder.
"The entire community is elated," she said.
In announcing the definition, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the agency's rule would "help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health."
But the vast majority of beneficiaries will be those who have embraced a gluten-free lifestyle without an official medical diagnosis. (There are so many of them that "Saturday Night Live" poked fun at the fad in one of its fake commercials, describing it as a "made-up allergy that you invented just to get attention.")
For people without celiac disease, the medical benefits of dropping gluten are unproved. Yet for many people, going without gluten seems to be the natural next step after becoming vegetarian, then vegan. Celebrities have put it in the spotlight: Gwyneth Paltrow included gluten-free recipes in her cookbook, "It's All Good," and Chelsea Clinton's wedding cake was made without it.
Some parents believe their children's autism symptoms improved when they stopped eating gluten and casein (a protein found in milk products), though there's no scientific evidence to support their observations.
Even industry analysts have been surprised at the strength of the gluten-free claim, said Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at Datamonitor Consumer, which tracks the introduction of new products into the U.S. market. So far this year, more than 18 percent of the new foods sold in stores make a gluten-free claim, the company said.
That's up from 11.5 percent in 2012 and 11.7 percent in 2011.
Just two weeks ago, the Whole Foods store in Los Angeles' Mid-City neighborhood rearranged its products to make room for a 39-foot aisle devoted exclusively to gluten-free products. Entire gluten-free stores have popped up, including Pam Mac D's Gluten-Free Market in Burbank.
A report from the Dallas-based research company Markets and Markets said the global market for gluten-free food could reach $6.2 billion by 2018, with North America accounting for nearly 60 percent of that.
Health authorities estimate that 1 in 133 people have celiac disease but that many of them are undiagnosed. Some larger group of people may have an intolerance for gluten, a condition that's still not well understood.
In people with celiac disease, foods that contain gluten trigger production of antibodies that attack and damage the lining of the small intestine. Such damage limits the ability of celiac disease patients to absorb nutrients and puts them at risk of other very serious health problems, including nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis, growth retardation, infertility, miscarriages, short stature and intestinal cancers.
Until a few years ago, bread bakers were among the few people who paid much attention to gluten.
The gluten-free life, however, is undeniably a diet du jour.
"The fad nature of it has put a lot of confusion out there," said Carol Shilson, executive director of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago.
As with so many nutrition fads, there's more than enough confusion to go around. How can chefs take people seriously when they demand a meal free of gluten but order cake for dessert?
Jessica Pantermuehl, an L.A.-based holistic nutrition counselor, said gluten is found in many unexpected places, making gluten-free shopping confusing for many people. The FDA regulation will help change that, she said.
"I think it is very helpful for people so they know what they're eating, so they don't have to dive into many hours of education to understand that gluten can be in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, for example," she said.
Indeed, gluten turns up in many processed foods that are not so obvious, including sauces, packaged entrees and flavorings. Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in Philadelphia, said she recently ordered a Caesar salad in a restaurant before learning that the chicken contained barley malt what those with her diet call "being glutened." (Luckily, she discovered this before she took a bite.)
The FDA noted that its 20 ppm standard has been generally accepted by many food companies and third-party certifiers. As such, the regulation will separate the food manufacturers who see gluten-free as a buzzword to sell their food but don't make sure their products comply, said Kane of the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Kane recalled the early days of the fat-free label, when produce aisles had signs for "fat-free grapefruit."
She said she suspected shoppers could see signs on water or broccoli touting their lack of gluten if that might mean higher sales.