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.
Anyone who ate gluten-free food five or 10 years ago understandably might opt to avoid such food forever after. In the old days, "We used to joke that when you got the food, you didn't know if you were supposed to eat the box or the contents," says Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland.
The taste and texture were pretty bad, agrees Scott Mandell, chief executive and co-founder of Enjoy Life Natural Brands, which makes gluten-free and allergy-friendly foods. "They gave a very gluten-free taste, which means kind of a mealy and bland, crumbly taste," he says. "They didn't give a good mouth-feel. If you ate a cookie, you didn't want another one."
That's because gluten plays a key role in providing structure to baked goods. During cooking, proteins in gluten create a sub-microscopic network that traps gas bubbles and adds viscosity and elasticity to the mix. When the product is heated, the moisture evaporates and the gluten becomes rigid, setting texture and structure.
Some of the old gluten-free foods weren't even particularly healthful.
"Typically, gluten-free foods have been made with refined, gluten-free products, including white-rice flour, tapioca starch, corn starch and potato starch," says Shelley Case, a registered dietitian and author of "Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide." "They added a lot of fat and sugar to make it taste palatable and stick together, so the food wasn't very good for you."
But in the last few years, gluten-free foods have gotten tastier and more healthful. Companies specializing in gluten-free foods are incorporating a wide variety of ingredients, often milled into flour to improve the products' flavor and nutritional content, including amaranth, quinoa, garbanzo beans, navy beans, fava beans, buckwheat, almonds, hazelnut, millet, brown rice, sorghum, flax and even mesquite pods and Indian rice grass.
Some products have been developed by small family ventures, often parents of children with celiac disease or others who suffer from the disorder. Finding few ready-made, gluten-free foods in the grocery store, they began experimenting at home and spun off their recipes into a cottage industry.
Single mom Shari Cole of Thousand Oaks, Calif., for example, two years ago co-launched a line of gluten-free foods, Gluten Free & Fabulous, after struggling to find tasty foods for her daughter, who is mildly autistic.
"Some people laughed at us, saying that (gluten-free food) was a fad," Cole says. "But we got sick of eating bad food that tasted like cardboard." Sales have quadrupled in the past year, she says.
Some of the new offerings have gotten a boost from an unexpected source: a current fascination with ancient grains — such as amaranth, quinoa and teff. These don't have the gluten proteins that trigger celiac disease, food trends forecaster Suzy Badaracco says. "So if you've got a product with ancient grains, if you're smart, you tie it into both trends — gluten-free and ancient grains. It's a double whammy."
— Los Angeles Times
Foods containing gluten:
Barley (extract, flavor, flour, malt), beer, bulgur, cereal extract, cracker meal, durum, elkorn, emmer, farina, faro, flour (unless labeled gluten-free), graham, kamut, matzoh, rye, semolina, spelt, wheat
May contain gluten:
Dextrin, flavored coffees and teas,
hydrolyzed vegetable or plant protein (HVP or HPP), imitation seafood or bacon, processed foods, seasonings or flavorings, seitan, soy sauce, textured vegetable protein (TVP)
Gluten-free flour alternatives:
rice, soy, millet, quinoa, potato, corn
Resources on celiac disease
and gluten-free diets
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.