Options Grow for Gluten Intolerant

By MaryEllen Fillo
The Hartford Courant
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

When Kara Mansfield learned she had celiac disease, nearly 20 years ago, she was discouraged not so much because it meant ridding her diet of foods such as wheat bread and pasta but because the alternatives were so unappetizing.

"Health-food stores sometimes had gluten-free products like rice bread and rice pasta," said the Windsor, Conn., resident, whose autoimmune intestinal disorder is triggered by a gluten intolerance. "The bread was frozen solid, and the rice pasta would be in boxes that looked like they had been on the shelves forever. You could find things online, but there weren't many, they didn't taste very good and they were expensive."

Attempts to find gluten-free recipes for sweets such as cookies and cakes traditionally made with the forbidden wheat flour was difficult, and even when she could, it was nearly impossible to find the ingredients the recipes called for.

But things have changed. As the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease has risen dramatically in the United States to an estimated one in 120 people, so have the variety and availability of products that make cooking or eating gluten free anything but medicinal.

In mainstream grocery stores, restaurants, airplanes, bookstores and cooking classes, gluten-free food is fast becoming the rule rather than the exception. And it's all because of a little marketing maxim called demand.

"The market is booming, and there are more choices because of the numbers of people with celiac disease," says Annalise G. Roberts, who recently wrote a cookbook titled "Gluten-Free Baking Classics" (Surrey, $16.95).

"I can go in my local Shop-Rite and find many of the flours I use to bake, gluten-free soy sauce, a lot of the things I need for my diet and cooking," says Roberts, who learned she had the disease four years ago. "People with celiac are starting to speak out. They want to be able to easily buy what they need to follow their diets, and retailers are starting to listen. And the smart retailers are listening."

They most certainly are, experts agree. Although specialty food stores have offered a limited selection of gluten-free products, the array and variety have picked up substantially in recent years. Retailers, who have long been offering products that are heart-healthy, diabetic-friendly and salt-free, are adding gluten-free wares to their aisles.

"The bottom line is we want to offer products that meet our customers' needs," says Robert Keane, a spokesman for the Massachusetts-based Stop & Shop chain. The stores sell gluten-free products such as cookies, baking staples, snack foods, condiments and cereals.

Also keeping up with the trend are airlines, restaurants and destination venues such as Disney World. Most major airlines now offer a gluten-free meal option, while a growing number of restaurants, including Legal Seafood, have menus that indicate which food choices are gluten-free.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of asking," says Mansfield, the Connecticut resident, who says she knows what she can or can't eat and will ask that bread crumbs not be included on a dish such as broiled scallops, or will opt for oil and vinegar rather than use a restaurant dressing, which might contain gluten.

At the recent Stanford Celiac Conference at Stanford University, more than 45 vendors set up their wares so that the nearly 500 participants, the maximum the conference could accommodate, could peruse and sample gluten-free products and watch demonstrations on how to cook gluten-free.

"When we started seven years ago there were a handful of participants and even fewer vendors," says organizer Kelly Rohlfs. "Now people are coming from all over the country to attend." Rohlfs says she is now able to shop more safely because new labeling laws require the listing of gluten.

For the gluten intolerant, when it's a special occasion that calls for cake or cookies, when the body craves a sandwich or toast with morning eggs, or when you want to do a tasty meal for company, there are products that deliver it all -- and no one will be the wiser.

"I cook totally gluten-free, and that is what I serve, even to guests," said Roberts, whose gluten-free baked creations include artisan breads that have been featured in Gourmet magazine. "No one can tell the difference."

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