Janelle Meinhardt used to get mystery headaches and upset stomachs that lasted for days. Six years ago, the Jacksonville nurse put two and two together and figured out that wheat in her diet was the culprit.
"If I eat wheat, I feel bad. I get headaches for three days. After four or five days of eating gluten-free, I feel so much better," says Meinhardt.
These symptoms are typical of celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder of the small intestine initiated by gluten and similar proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. According to the nonprofit Celiac Disease Foundation, 1 in 133 Americans have celiac disease, and 97 percent of people with the condition remain undiagnosed.
A blood test for specific antibodies is the usual first step in diagnosis. A positive result is often followed by a bowel biopsy. The only treatment is a permanent change to a gluten-free diet.
Some people are allergic to wheat, but not to the other glutinous grains. The symptoms, however, can be identical.
Gracie D'Antonio first learned she had a wheat allergy when she was 8 years old.
"I got sick after eating bread — puffy around the stomach, bloated. My mother's a chiropractor, and she figured it out," says the 16-year-old Medford girl.
D'Antonio says she's afraid to eat out. Her allergy is so severe it can be triggered if the spatula used to flip her burger has touched a bun. On the few occasions she does eat out, she sticks to salad.
Maintaining a strict gluten-free diet is difficult because wheat and other glutinous grains are common in processed foods, and ingredient lists can be confusing.
Wheat is the main ingredient in pasta, where it often goes by the name durum semolina. Flavorings in many snack foods, including some corn chips, use hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which is often made with wheat. Beer is made from gluten-containing barley. The sweetener, maltodextrin, used widely and found in some ice cream brands, is often barley-derived. "Emulsifiers," also known as thickening agents, are often wheat-based. Many pills — both over-the-counter and prescription — use wheat emulsifiers. Even some lipsticks contain gluten.
"The only solution is to read the label, go to Web sites and do the research," says Maria Katsantones, educational specialist at Ashland Food Co-op. "Be careful. Labeling is inconsistent."
Because her father has a life-threatening reaction to even the smallest amount of dietary gluten, Katsantones has accumulated a wealth of information, which she shares with Co-op customers. Her first assignment when she began her job two years ago was to create a list of the gluten-free products carried by the Co-op. The list is now several pages long and is updated regularly.
Rice flour is the most common gluten-free substitute for wheat in baking. Soy, quinoa, potato, corn and millet flour also are safe. Be prepared to adjust your expectations, says Katsantones, because the texture of gluten-free baked goods is different from those made with wheat.
Although oats were once thought to contain gluten, scientists have now confirmed that the gluten risk posed by oats is caused by contamination from processing oats with the same equipment used for wheat. For this reason, Katsantones warns, stay away from bulk bins, where gluten-free items may share a scoop with other bins that contain wheat products.
Other local food stores and restaurants have been adding gluten-free products, responding to a huge increase in demand. Food 4 Less and Fred Meyer in Medford both have special sections for gluten-free foods, Market of Choice in Ashland has been offering gluten-free products for more than six years, and Health Food Mart in Medford offers a wide array of gluten-free products.
Omar's Restaurant in Ashland offers multiple gluten-free dishes among its daily specials and marks them as such on their menus.
"It was a concern that needed to be addressed," says James Williams, executive chef and part owner at Omar's. "A lot of customers inquired about gluten-free."
Three local bakeries — Gluten Free Goodies and Nessie's Own, both of Talent, and Sweet Aroma in Central Point — offer a wide selection of gluten-free breads and goodies. They sell their products at local growers' markets and deliver to retail establishments.
Betty Lake, owner of Sweet Aroma Bakery, says that in the month following a recent Mail Tribune story about her gluten-free baked goods, her business doubled.
This local groundswell of interest in gluten-free foods mirrors a national trend. Nielsen Co. reported that sales of gluten-free foods in the U.S. increased by 20 percent, to $1.75 billion, for the fiscal year ending June 14.
Mintel, a market research firm, found that 8 percent of the U.S. population looks for gluten-free foods during shopping trips, and that the number of gluten-free products has increased from 214 in 2004 to 700 in 2007.
For those on a gluten-free diet, more help is on the way. In response to passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, the federal Food and Drug Administration is now finalizing strict labeling standards for the use of the phrase "gluten-free" in product labeling. In the same way that use of the term "organic" is regulated, the FDA, by the end of 2008, intends to regulate the use of "gluten-free" to assist patients of celiac disease and sufferers of other food allergies.
Wheat and other glutinous grains are most common in processed foods. The benefit of the national interest in gluten-free foods may ultimately be an increase in the availability and variety of fruit, vegetables and other unprocessed foods. For all of us, with or without food allergies, that's a positive step.