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Wheat Woes

Building a business around baking, Dan Allen wasn't just invested financially in breads, rolls, scones and sweets.

Wheat, predictably, was long a staple of his diet. The owner of Great Harvest Bread Co. consumed four or five slices of his decade-old bakery's whole-grain bread every day.

“I thought it was good for me,” Allen says.

That was before digestive difficulties caused him to consult Medford naturopathic physician Dr. Cory Tichauer, who ran some tests that confirmed Allen's wheat sensitivity. Tichauer suggested Allen eliminate wheat and other grains containing gluten, the protein that lends structure and lift to baked goods. Allen, 44, not only avoided eating bread, he stopped milling Great Harvest's flour, a process that irritated his eyes and sinuses.

“It's quite ironic,” the Medford resident says. “I kind of just had to roll with it.”

But rather than rolling over and submitting to life without bread, Allen set out to create one that he and anyone who must refrain from wheat and gluten could enjoy. Before long, Allen had procured gluten-free ingredients and a Great Harvest franchise recipe that combines organic whole-grain buckwheat, brown-rice and tapioca flours, along with butter, milk, eggs, honey, flaxseed meal, xanthan gum, salt and yeast. The bread bests any gluten-free version Allen has found in grocery and health-food stores. Customers seem to agree.

“It's the freshest, most wholesome ingredients we can find,” he says. “It's never been frozen.

“It's just taken off.”

The reception is a marked departure from Allen's efforts to sell a gluten-free bread three years ago, when he had to throw most of it out by week's end. Starting with a batch of 15 loaves in May, Great Harvest tripled its sales within two months, Allen says.

“Almost daily, somebody asks me about it at the store,” he says. “We're seeing new faces we haven't seen before.”

Health experts say that while celiac disease — the autoimmune reaction to gluten — isn't a new concern, increasing numbers of patients experience a range of symptoms that can be traced to wheat consumption. Whether they suffer intestinal discomfort, headaches, skin irritation or achy joints, more people harbor nonspecific sensitivities to wheat, doctors and dietitians say, than the estimated 1.5 to 3 million Americans diagnosed with celiac disease, which leaves the small intestines scarred and unable to absorb nutrients.

“We're more aware of digestive disorders than we've ever been,” says registered dietitian Julie Kokinakes Anderson.

Anderson and other experts blame the phenomenon on processed food and its prevalence in the American diet. In large, centralized processing facilities, foods that don't naturally contain gluten become contaminated from sharing equipment with foods that do, Anderson says. And gluten has gained a reputation over the decades as a useful additive in manufacturing packaged foods, from yogurt to soy sauce, that are available in any grocery store.

“Exposure is higher than it's been in previous years,” Anderson says. “They're gonna get bombarded with this sensitivity.

“If people are sensitive to gluten, they probably have a huge amount of it in their diet, as well as a real lack of other nutrients.”

Although gluten is widely perceived as the harmful component of wheat, the sugar fructose may be the real culprit, say Anderson and Medford gastroenterologist Dr. Anthony Haulk. The human digestive system is not equipped to absorb fructose, which occurs naturally in wheat's starch and synthetically in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, he says.

“They put fructose in just about everything,” Haulk adds.

While celiac disease affects approximately 5 percent of his patients, fructose malabsorption, by contrast, is “pretty ubiquitous,” Haulk adds. His prescription of refraining from wheat and other whole-grain foods comes as a surprise to many patients who assume they were following a heart-healthy diet only to learn it compromised their digestive health, Haulk says.

“You can have a wheat sensitivity without having celiac disease,” he says. “We say, ‘Listen to your body; don't eat the bread.' ”

Vivian White's body was speaking loud and clear over the four years she eliminated certain foods, most recently wheat. “Playing detective,” White, 59, is convinced she doesn't need a doctor's diagnosis to confirm her own suspicions.

“You just feel yucky, sick after you eat,” the Medford resident says. “There just can't be any cheating.”

Apart from dining out, White encounters few difficulties in adhering to a diet that includes mainly fruits, vegetables, brown rice and small portions of meat and fish. But occasions when she craved dessert could be her downfall.

“It was just really unusual to find a dessert that works for you when you have a gluten problem,” she says.

Then she found Sweet Aroma Bakery, a wholesale business dedicated to gluten-free breads and sweets. Central Point resident Betty Lake baked for almost three years in a commercial kitchen until — overwhelmed by demand — she curtailed production early this year, to the regret of White and hundreds of other customers, some of whom live outside Oregon and received Lake's bread by direct mail.

“It's a demand you just can't imagine,” says Lake, a 59-year-old Central Point resident.

Because no one in her immediate family suffered a gluten intolerance, Lake started crafting her original recipes based solely on customer demand. She started selling a wheat-based cinnamon roll in 2006 at local farmers markets but was challenged to bake alternatives when some shoppers claimed they couldn't taste a single bite of Lake's signature product.

“People started asking for gluten-free, and I said, ‘What's that?' ” she recalls.

Lake has plans to certify her home kitchen for commercial use and start baking again this fall. The move can't come too soon for customers like White who happily pay as much as $7.50 for a loaf of gluten-free bread.

Until then, they have Great Harvest, which sells its bread for $8.95 per loaf, double the price of its honey whole-wheat. The high cost of ingredients and the labor involved warrants the price, Allen says, explaining that the Medford bakery uses special bread molds and must sterilize surfaces that will come in contact with the bread before baking it on Mondays.

Yet Great Harvest can't technically call the loaves “gluten-free” because there remains a small chance that gluten from other flours could have contaminated the batch, Allen says. The term “gluten-less” is used as a warning to anyone who is susceptible to the most minute quantity of gluten, he adds.

“Even we can't serve every customer out there who needs to have a gluten-less diet,” Allen says. “It's a hard market.”

It's a lesson Medford resident Jen Parrish learned after two years of baking and wholesaling graham crackers and cheese-flavored goldfish crackers to local stores. Although she charged $7 for a bag of crackers, the 39-year-old couldn't sustain her business in a foundering economy despite strong customer interest. A year after discontinuing her Gluten-free Goodies, she receives a half-dozen monthly requests for home-baked goods, which she still produces for family and friends.

“It just wasn't enough, unfortunately,” she says. “When you have to eat this way, it is very expensive.”

Yet she and Lake are taking heart that as gluten- and wheat-free foods become more mainstream, they will cost less and benefit a wider consumer audience. Both note that Betty Crocker recently released a line of gluten-free brownie, cake and cookie mixes that have reached local supermarket shelves.

“I was so excited,” Parrish says. “I read the whole box.”

Ian Parrish, 5, takes a gluten-free cookie made from brown-rice and tapioca flours, almond meal and potato starch, baked by mom Jen Parrish.