Going Gluten Free: As awareness of gluten sensitivity arises, Birmingham establishments provide more options
Jenny Basselin, who blogs at www.glutenfreebirmingham.com, eliminated wheat, rye and barley with her family of six when her oldest daughter was diagnosed with celiac four years ago. Basselin herself has a sensitivity to gluten, and one of her other daughters has severe stomach issues, so a gluten-free diet benefitted the whole family.
Basselin started her blog in October 2010 in order to share money-saving tips with other people on the diet, posting coupons and listing restaurants in Birmingham that have gluten-free menus. She explains that the number of gluten-free products on the market can seem overwhelming, not to mention expensive, when changing one’s diet. Rather than embarking on a gluten-free shopping binge, she recommends streamlining one’s diet first and going gluten-free “just by eating your plain meats, fruits and vegetables, all of which are naturally gluten-free.”
It appears gluten-free food is on an unabated rise. Just a decade ago, health food and organic grocers were the sole proprietors of food without this protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Today, one can take a casual stroll through aisles at Wal-Mart and find flours, cookies, crackers, and pasta that are all gluten free. Betty Crocker now offers cake, cookie and brownie mixes that use a combination of rice, tapioca and corn rather than wheat flour. They even offer gluten-free Bisquick. When dining out, national chain restaurants like P.F. Changs, Outback Steakhouse and the Macaroni Grill have all had gluten-free menus for years.
In Birmingham, local restaurants and cafes are increasingly offering gluten and wheat-free options. Dream Cakes Bakery makes gluten-free chocolate, vanilla and red velvet cupcakes available to order, while other local haunts like Urban Cookhouse, Surin of Thailand, Cosmos Pizza, and the Organic Harvest Cafe all provide gluten-free menu options. Yet, even as gluten-free food labels abound, just who benefits from a gluten-free diet and what constitutes gluten-free is not always clear.
A gluten-free diet is the primary treatment for celiac disease — a genetic disorder where consuming gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction, which flattens the villi in the small intestine, preventing the absorption of nutrients and leaving the patient essentially malnourished. Symptoms associated with celiac include bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, and constipation. Celiac can also cause a skin disorder that resembles psoriasis, known as dermatitis herpetiformis.
According to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, one in every 133 people in the United States suffers from celiac, making it twice as common as Crohn’s disease, ulceric colitis and cystic fibrosis combined. Or, as the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University explains, celiac is one of the most common genetic diseases physicians encounter.
The disease, however, remains severely under diagnosed. A decade ago, nearly 80 percent of Americans with celiac disease went undiagnosed, a trend that is gradually reversing with increased awareness among physicians. So while it appears that more and more people have the disease, actually, more people who already had celiac are finding out the true source of their turbulent gastrointestinal systems.
Beyond celiac patients, more and more people have found health benefits from cutting out gluten and other grains. From the Atkins diet’s anti-carbohydrate weight loss campaign, to an increased awareness of food allergies, to the paleolithic or “paleo” diet’s recreation of caveman gastronomy through the elimination of grain, dairy, legumes and processed oils — several trends in specialty diets have introduced Americans to their potential aversion to gluten.
Dietician Sarah Mosier, LD, RD, suggests that part of what so many people find beneficial about going gluten-free is a simplification of their diet. “You probably will have a healthier digestive system if you cut out grain because they are more complex, but overall our systems have developed a tolerance to these grains.”
As Mosier says, “It all comes back to eating healthy — reducing refined sugars, and incorporating all food groups.”
Heather and Cal Morris, co-owners of Church Street Coffee and Books, did just that by limiting their intake of gluten, dairy, and refined sugar in order to treat Cal’s psoriasis. Heather called it an “eight-week experiment,” where in week one they completely cut out all dairy, gluten and refined sugar, and subsequently continued limiting their consumption of all three groups. While the initial change was a bit of a shock, after only three days Cal had more energy and his skin started to clear. By week five or six, he told Heather to take down the week-to-week schedule. “I’m just gonna stick with this. I’ve never felt this good in my life,” she remembers him saying.
The changes the Morris family made at home were also reflected in the bakery options at Church Street. “I couldn’t come into my store with a good conscience,” Heather says. While the baked goods used unbleached flour, and more honey and molasses, she says they were still “loaded with sugar and flour.”
They began offering a “Sunrise Cookie,” made of ground almonds, vanilla, agave nectar and a dollop of apricot jam. They also launched a “Sweet Mud Bar” that abides by most of the paleo diet’s restrictions. Both of the new additions have been extremely popular with customers. Morris adds that while their bakery case also includes treats like the chocolate marmalade mini and chocolate soufflé cake — both of which are flourless — they do not label these items “gluten-free” because their facility cannot protect against cross contamination.
To date Birmingham still lacks a completely gluten-free bakery or restaurant. Considering the more than 300 families connected to the Birmingham Celiac Support Group and the more than 800 people who attended Birmingham’s Gluten-free Expo this past year, however, Besselin projects the gluten-free trend will continue to rise, and that a truly celiac-friendly facility is not out of reach.