Jan Thorsell wants fellow sufferers of celiac disease to feel "normal" when they walk into her new bakery.

Jan Thorsell wants fellow sufferers of celiac disease to feel "normal" when they walk into her new bakery.

Gia's Gluten Free Bakery creates cakes, cookies, brownies, muffins and other pastries — normally off-limits for people who experience potentially life-threatening autoimmune reactions to gluten, the naturally occurring protein in wheat, rye and barley. All of Thorsell's products are gluten-free, boasting numerous ingredients approved by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.

"I think gluten-free is a destination," says Thorsell, 60, who opened the Rogue Valley's first gluten-free bakery in Phoenix last month.

It took Thorsell about five years to arrive at her own diagnosis of celiac disease after making the rounds of Oregon specialists, who after countless tests suggested she was anorexic. The prolonged period of inflammation, stomach ulcers, acid reflux and weight loss almost killed her, says Thorsell. A Corvallis gastroenterologist finally identified the cause about 30 years ago, decades before celiac disease entered the layman's lexicon.

"I had never heard what gluten was," says Thorsell.

But the then-Albany resident had plenty of contact with the substance that essentially exists as the building blocks of baked goods. Thorsell baked all of her family's bread, dinner rolls and hamburger buns. And throughout her illness, she ate lots of starchy foods, believing they were easy to digest.

Although she went through a kind of "grieving period" for her favorite foods, Thorsell staunchly set out to devise a new diet. Approximately 1 percent of Americans also diagnoses of celiac disease, but many more are choosing to eliminate gluten.

"I was so sick that I was willing to do anything," says Thorsell.

Cooking new foods came easily to Thorsell, who loves the creative process in her kitchen. Finding commercially made gluten-free alternatives to bread proved much more difficult, says Thorsell, who recalls brown rice cakes being preferable to the first gluten-free rice breads.

Although Thorsell bakes gluten-free bread for her personal use, she chose to stock a Colorado company's loaves at Gia's because they're the best she's ever encountered and she didn't want to "reinvent the wheel." Instead, Thorsell took classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute to fill the void of gluten-free sweets.

"I haven't been able to walk into a bakery and buy anything," says Thorsell.

Gluten-free muffins, cookies and cakes aren't uncommon in the Rogue Valley, and numerous entrepreneurs sell gluten-free goods at local grocers, farmers markets and specialty stores. But Thorsell offers more unusual items: Madeleines are a shell-shaped sponge cake; financiers are made with almond meal and egg whites and topped with fresh raspberries.

So confident that her products taste just as good as counterparts containing gluten, Thorsell keeps the bakery stocked with free samples. There's virtually no risk of cross-contamination from gluten because Thorsell has never handled wheat flour in her new, certified, commercial kitchen and has no plans to.

Once she installs a refrigerated retail case, Thorsell plans to add eclairs, cream puffs and flourless chocolate cake to her repertoire. The store, manned by her son, Doug Reding, also will stock frozen, gluten-free pizzas and items like macaroni and cheese from other suppliers. Within the next few weeks, a website will allow customers to purchase online, says Thorsell.

"I just want to keep trying new things."

A longtime resident of Florence, where she operated a women's clothing store, Thorsell settled in the Rogue Valley decades after attending the former Southern Oregon College in Ashland and vacationing with family in the area. Surprised that Ashland didn't already have a gluten-free bakery, she says she thought Phoenix was an ideal location, within easy reach of customers in both Medford and Ashland. One customer commented that Thorsell "beat Ashland."

I was like 'I didn't know it was a competition,' " she says.

Gia's Gluten Free Bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays at 310 N. Main St., Phoenix. Call 541-512-7469.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.