When patients' supply of gluten-free muffins ground to a halt, Ashland Community Hospital didn't have to look far for a replacement.
Baker Keri Green contacted the hospital early this year, just as its food service used the last batch of corn muffins, purchased from a local gluten-free baker who didn't survive the economic downturn. An Ashland resident and host for Jefferson Public Radio, Green passed a year off work perfecting a line of gluten-free baked goods marketed to fellow sufferers of celiac disease.
"Her timing couldn't have been better," says Teresa Cooke, the hospital's nutrition service coordinator.
After nearly a decade spent developing recipes for her own gluten-free diet, Green was confident the time had come for catering to an alternative lifestyle that's becoming more common. By using the highest quality, all-natural ingredients, Green says she believes her baked goods — appropriately dubbed Green's Gluten Free — improve on the poor reputation of so many gluten-free products that have come before.
"One of my main goals is to create things that are so yummy that anybody would like them," says Green, 53.
Using whole-grain flours, cage-free eggs and many organic ingredients, Green's muffins, cookies, brownies and bars deliver health on more than one front, Green says. Many mass-produced gluten-free foods rely on refined starches to stand in for the protein gluten, which gives structure and lift to baked goods. In the absence of gluten from wheat, rye, barley or triticale, a different "glue" is needed to hold breads and other bakery products together. Although they don't trigger the autoimmune reaction to gluten known as celiac disease, potato, corn and tapioca starches "are just as bad for you," Green says.
"I was appalled at what I was finding," she says. "Those were not products I wanted to use."
She quickly gravitated toward flours from naturally gluten-free grains, such as brown rice. Brownies were an early success, followed by poppy-seed muffins and carrot cake. She seduced friends with samples, which most often elicited reactions of disbelief that the treats were gluten-free.
Local restaurateurs weren't nearly so enthusiastic, telling Green six years ago that there was "no market" for gluten-free desserts. Grocery-store shelves told a different story, Green says.
"The market has only grown since then," she says. "I knew there were lots and lots of people like me."
So after biding her time — during which more than one local gluten-free baker foundered — Green started baking her specialities in January at Talent's Rent-A-Kitchen and canvassing the county for wholesale accounts. Her first customers, in addition to ACH, are Ashland's Shop 'N' Kart and Bloomsbury Coffee Shop, Tark's market in Talent and the nearby Whistle Stop coffee shop. With her Web site (www.greensglutenfree.com) a main point of contact, Green says she also wants to bake by special order.
Ordering one of Green's Made O' Corn Muffins at ACH is simple for patients, who have the hospital's entire menu at their disposal any time of day, Cooke says. The muffin is a key "comfort-food" item for a growing gluten-free demographic, she says.
"More and more people are finding out that they have an allergy or an intolerance," Cooke says, adding that in the five years she's manned the hospital's nutrition helm, the past two years have brought a major surge in requests for gluten-free foods.
It's a trend repeated across the country. About 3 million Americans, according to the nonprofit Celiac Disease Foundation, are believed to suffer the genetic condition that scars small intestines, rendering them unable to absorb nutrients. However, only a fraction of those affected by the disorder have been diagnosed, advocates say. Many more Americans display symptoms of wheat sensitivity, which manifests as inflammation, headaches, skin irritation or digestive disturbances.
Green's own health troubles ran the gamut, from decades of "mysterious stomach aches" to full-body joint pain. In 1997, the problem became too big to ignore, and Green underwent allergy testing with her naturopathic physician who, after eight months, diagnosed her with celiac disease. It took another two years before Green's health fully returned.
"All my life, my body was never getting proper nutrition," she says.
Green reconstructed her meals around green vegetables, healthful oils and adequate protein, eliminating sugar, yeast and caffeine. She advocates this sensible, whole-foods diet even as she's baking brownies and cookies named for her business mascot, Dynamo the squirrel, whose motto is "Eat your vegetables."
"Even gluten-free treats should be eaten in moderation," Green says. "They have sugar in them.
"Dynamo doesn't want people to abuse sugar."