SANDY — There is only one place where Sadee Thomas can eat anything she wants, and she looks forward to the Gluten Free Expo every year with her mother.
"Nothing is off-limits here," said her mother, Jody Thomas, of Tooele, who was lugging around at least one shopping bag full of wheat-free products purchased at the expo.
It's the largest expo of its kind in the United States, and people fly in from all over to get the latest and greatest information on going gluten-free.
Thom Kicinski, executive publisher of Simply Gluten Free magazine and a vendor at shows across the country, said he believes the Salt Lake City show is successful because it "exhibits a genuine care for all gluten-free and allergen-free people."
"They're putting on a show to really educate the people who come and to really entertain them," Kicinski said, adding that the crowds get bigger every year.
Studies he's seen and some published in his magazine have surmised that growth in the gluten-free community is not because of a greater awareness or detection of the disease, but because of changes in the American diet and the way foods are being processed.
"Food triggers the disease, and then food is how you solve the problem," said Mike Deaver, spokesman at the local expo.
Deaver's sister, Debbie Mudliar, 39, started the expo seven years ago to help people like herself gain access to valuable resources about having celiac disease and being unable to eat gluten. It has grown bigger every year, with more than 100 vendors and 8,000-plus attendees this year.
"Transitioning from a normal lifestyle to gluten-free was a struggle for me," Mudliar said.
She researched the disease and read every single label on foods, but has only recently seen restaurants complying with the restrictive rules.
"There's definitely room for improvement," Mudliar said.
Popularity of the lifestyle, including higher rates of diagnoses, has sent the gluten-free foods industry flying — going from selling $2 million in products annually to around $17 billion. The increase in availability of gluten-free foods has also helped decrease the prices, but many believe the restricted foods are still too expensive.
"I spoil (Sadee). I buy her whatever she wants to eat because I think she deserves it," Thomas said. But some of the other family members who eat gluten-free for the most part aren't allowed to eat the pricier foods bought just for Sadee.
Sadee, 14, was diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago, after nauseating symptoms — bloating, gas and diarrhea, among others — were reported during a routine visit with her doctor. She has Type 1 diabetes and is checked each year for celiac, an autoimmune disease, as it is sometimes more common in people with diabetes.
It is also more commonly diagnosed in women.
Mudliar said that as the years go by, more people are aware of it and are comfortable with the term gluten-free, even if they just see a special section in the supermarket.
"It's becoming more normal," she said. "And more options equals freedom for us."
For more information on the annual expo held in Salt Lake City, visit glutenfreeexpo.com.