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Free to be gluten-free

It wasn’t very long ago that consumers needed detective skills to hunt down gluten-free foods in Southern Oregon.

Now, most local grocery stores and many restaurants cater to restrictive diets, going so far as to mark gluten-free items on their price tags or menus.

Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Natural Grocers and Winco identify gluten-free foods with storewide labels to make it easier for customers to spot gluten-free items.

“We coordinated gluten-free items into where you would normally go to make it easier for the shopper,” explained Pernie Waters, store manager at Albertsons in west Medford. “If you want to bake, you go to the baking aisle instead of the 8-foot section of gourmet natural foods we kept them in.”

When the south Fred Meyer remodeled, the natural foods selection was expanded, including gluten-free items.

“There has been a strong demand for natural items at our south Medford store organic, gluten-free and dairy-free are some of the top requests so we were excited to expand this department,” said Jeffery Temple, communications director for the Fred Meyer Division of Kroger.

While Trader Joe’s, Sherm’s Food 4 Less, Cartwright’s Market, Grocery Outlet and the Medford Co-op have a plethora of gluten-free foods on their shelves, they are not always labeled as such on their price tags.

Processed food options may have their gluten-free status underlined via gluten-free banners to distinguish them from other products in their category. But items not presumed to contain gluten by nature, such as produce, raw nuts and basic milk products, are not labeled, often because the manufacturers choose not to go through the certification process. If a product says “gluten-free” on its label, it has to be certified by the FDA in order to advertise itself as such.

“So many people are going gluten-free,” said Erin Smith, store manager at Natural Grocers. “Every store around has amazing variety nowadays.”

“There is a national trend toward alternative food options,” explained Blake Johnson, frozen foods and dairy inventory manager at Cartwright’s Market in Medford. “We wanted to cater to multiple demographics, not exclude anyone because of allergy, cost or availability. No customer’s need is too big.”

When it comes to dining out, restaurants can be a gamble for people with celiac disease. Who wants to be stuck ordering a salad because it’s the only relatively trustworthy dish on the menu?

Many businesses cannot guarantee against cross-contamination in the kitchen, even if it is policy to try to limit contact. But many restaurants do their best to provide gluten-free options.

Many dine-in burger joints and drive-thrus offer a “protein style,” lettuce-wrapped burger, while several local pizza joints offer a gluten-free crust for extra charge.

Individually packaged gluten-free subs are available at Subway, where sandwich artists are required to wash their hands before handling a gluten-free order, and to create a barrier between all contaminated surfaces.

R&D Sandwich Factory in Medford takes special precautions in its prep of a gluten-free order, asking whether a request is for personal choice or celiac. If the customer requires special care be taken, the restaurant will clean its grill and utensils, and limit exposure during assemblage.

Wamba Juice and Organic Natural Cafe have gluten-free bread substitutes, in addition to their naturally gluten-free smoothies and customizations for breakfast and lunch.

Cicily’s Pastaria & Grill in Medford is noteworthy because most every pasta dish on the menu can be substituted with a handmade gluten-free pasta at no extra charge.

Lark’s also caters to gluten-free customers, carefully identifying each dish on its menus as gluten-free or not.

India Palace Restaurant is especially friendly to gluten-free customers. Its entire entree menu for lunch and dinner is made without wheat.

The Cupcake Company on North Phoenix Road in Medford offers an assortment of fresh-baked, gluten-free desserts. And for late-night mingling, 4 Daughters Irish Pub in Medford has a gluten-free section on its main menu with options in every category, including drinks.

“It started about six years ago as a separate flyer of gluten-free options and evolved to be part of the main menu,” says bartender Selena Simpson. “Servers don’t have to go searching through ingredient lists in the kitchen to answer customer concerns about oil or gluten-free buns. It’s all there. ... It’s easier this way, and our customers have been very pleased to have the guesswork taken out of ordering.”

Jennifer Bynum is a freelance writer living in Medford.

JAMIE LUSCH / MAIL TRIBUNEBlake Johnson, frozen foods and dairy inventory manager at Cartwright’s Market in Medford, says the company offers many gluten-free products because it doesn't want anyone to feel excluded.