With the latest data showing U.S. flour production lagging a year ago, it seems increasingly likely that a growing number of consumers are avoiding grain-based foods once again.

A Wall Street Journal article last week highlighted the rising popularity of gluten-free dieting, even though the article said the diet is an ill-conceived weight loss strategy. Fresh from the experience of the Atkins craze a few years earlier, grain-based foods certainly saw gluten-free coming and were quick to introduce gluten-free products, while also concluding that as a diet regime, gluten-free would not have the impact of Atkins. That conclusion still looks correct, but Atkins as a yardstick increasingly seems too blunt an instrument to comprehend the potential impact of the gluten-free phenomenon.

Advocates of gluten-free dieting take a much different tack than Dr. Atkins and his followers did. In Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s “The G-Free Diet,” the television personality emphasizes not that gluten-free dieting is a quick way to lose weight but that avoiding gluten has made her feel much, much better. Many of us would like to lose weight, but wouldn’t just about all of us like to feel better?

And it may be the wellness factor that is catching on. The Journal suggested that as many as 20 million Americans appear to be sensitive to gluten without having full-blown celiac disease.

“For them, symptoms may be less typical, involving depression, mental fogginess, mood swings and behavior changes,” the Journal said. “Much less is known about this group.”

Twenty million is large enough, but could even a larger number avoid gluten in the fear they could be in this group? The science behind the gluten-sensitive hypothesis will be studied in the years ahead, but it’s difficult for grain-based foods not to feel being picked on. Immediately disproving such an untested hypothesis is impossible, and the issue challenges industry groups like the Grain Foods Foundation and the Wheat Foods Council. After enduring years of attack under the specious notion that carbohydrates are evil and protein is good, grain-based foods finds itself besieged over its protein — its gluten.

First and foremost, the industry needs better understanding of how the latest flour-bashing craze is altering consumer attitudes along with a strategy for neutralizing this movement.