Gluten-free used to be something that food makers didn’t brag about.
The few products that were free of wheat or gluten would say so in small type on the back.
“In the consumer’s mind, gluten-free meant ‘It doesn’t taste good,’” says Alice Bast, president of the National Celiac Awareness Foundation.
And now? Walk the aisles of any supermarket and “gluten-free” is shouting from the shelves. There are gluten-free products from Bisquick to Betty Crocker. There’s gluten-free soy sauce and gluten-free ketchup, even gluten-free cosmetics.
“Now ‘free’ means ‘it’s better for you,’” says Bast. And a lot of people who don’t have celiac disease and haven’t been diagnosed with gluten-sensitivity are reaching for gluten-free products.
While 1 to 2 percent of the population has celiac disease and 6 to 8 percent have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivities, up to 25 percent of Americans are eating gluten-free without being diagnosed and 69 percent are trying gluten-free products.
Even in the middle of an economic slowdown, the gluten-free industry has grown 30 percent. It’s expected to hit $2.6 billion this year and $5 billion by 2015.
“We have our sports figures saying their athletic prowess is better on a gluten-free diet,” says Bast. “And then you have the Gwyneth [Paltrows] and the Victoria Beckhams saying, ‘I buy gluten-free — it keeps me slender.’”
But while the trend is making it easier for people with celiac disease, it’s also bringing unwelcome changes — more processed food, diet claims that aren’t proven and the risk of “gluten-free” menus that don’t live up to the name.
“It reminds me of the no-fat thing with Snackwells [nonfat cookies],” says Barbara D’Ambrosio of The Thoughtful Baker, an allergen- and gluten-free custom baker in Charlotte, N.C.
“It’s like everybody is getting on the gluten-free bandwagon.”
For Lee Tobin, gluten-free started with one person — himself.
“I was just trying to feed myself,” he says. When Tobin was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1998, he was working for Wellspring in Chapel Hill, N.C., a health-focused food market that had been bought by Whole Foods.
Tobin had a background as a chef and baker, so he made a few gluten-free baked goods and took them to a local support group.
“Gluten-free” was so new, the group only had four members. But they loved what he made and wondered if the store would make more.
“‘Just for four of you?’” Tobin said. “‘Well, why not — we’ll give it a try.’”
Tobin kept baking and the demand kept growing. In 2004, he convinced Whole Foods to let him start a gluten-free baking facility near Raleigh, N.C.
Today, the Whole Foods Market Gluten-Free Bakehouse in Morrisville, N.C., bakes for more than 300 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada. It makes more than 20 products and handles the testing of gluten-free products and ingredients.
Now Tobin is seeing a new explosion: People who are putting themselves on the diet on their own, or who have had a doctor suggest they try it.
“It can be a good diet, it can be a bad diet,” he says. “It depends on your approach.”
Gluten-free supporters and marketers make many claims about weight-loss and health. But health experts say people may lose weight or feel more energetic when they cut out gluten simply because they are paying attention to what they eat. Or they’re cooking more from scratch and using more fruits and vegetables because that’s the easiest way to control what you eat.
But now that gluten-free products are expanding, that advantage may disappear. Gluten-free processed and convenience foods can be high in salt, sugar and starches. They also may be lower in fiber.
“It’s certainly not a weight-loss thing if you’re eating most of the products out there now,” says Peter Reinhart, the baking expert and cookbook author who works for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. “If they’re not loaded with sugar, they’re loaded with starches that convert into body fat.”
Reinhart isn’t the first guy you’d think of for wheat-free products. He’s famous for his work with bread and pizza. But his new book, coming out in August, is “The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking.”
Using nut flours, Splenda and stevia, Reinhart and co-author Denene Wallace came up with 80 recipes for breads, cookies and cakes that are easy enough for home bakers and that address a couple of health issues, including celiac disease and diabetes.
Reinhart lost some weight when he started working on the book. But he’s quick to point out that just cutting out gluten doesn’t make for easy weight loss.
“These are not ‘diet’ foods,” he says. “They’re not low-calorie products.”
There are positives to the interest in gluten-free products, of course. Charlotte baker D’Ambrosio likes that some products have been changed in ways that improve them. For instance, corn tortillas or rice-based cereals could have been gluten-free all along, if they were made in a gluten-free facility.
D’Ambrosio, who is not gluten-intolerant, bakes for her customers in a home kitchen that is certified allergen free. She uses separate pans and even separate mixing bowls for highly allergic customers.
With the gluten-free market growing so large, she worries, not all businesses will be that careful.
That’s a valid worry, says Bast. “A lot [of restaurants] are saying they do it, but they don’t understand cross-contamination,” she says. “They’ll remove the croutons from the salad, but they’ll use the knife from the bread to cut the baked potato. And that little bit [of gluten] can be poison to someone with celiac disease.”
Bast’s foundation emphasizes the importance of getting a diagnosis before you go gluten-free. For one thing, if you avoid gluten and then get tested, you may not get a true result from the test.
If you have been diagnosed, you can see it as an opportunity to learn new ways of cooking, Bast says. The interest in gluten-free cooking may push food makers into exploring new ingredients.
“There’s got to be a happy medium,” she says. “Americans are used to convenience. There are a lot of natural foods that are convenient, like quinoa.
“Until you have the consumers, changes are not going to be made. It was just 1 percent of us. Now that it’s 15 or 25 percent, we count.”
What is it?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, including wheat, rye, oats and barley. But because wheat in particular is used in so many forms of food processing, it can turn up in a lot of foods, such as mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. Consuming gluten can cause the immune system to attack body tissue, which damages part of the small intestine and prevents absorption of nutrients. Symptoms include abdominal pain, constipation, anemia, headaches and joint or bone pain.
Gluten sensitivity is less well known, but may be involved in other food allergies or health issues. Other groups also avoid gluten, including children with ADHD or autism and people with Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
Any Nut Bread
Yield: 1 loaf (10 to 12 slices)
From “The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking,” by Peter Reinhart and Denene Wallace (Ten Speed Press, due in August). The batter can be made with any nuts. Xantham gum is found in most health food stores and health-focused supermarkets.
3 cups (12 ounces) almond flour (see note)
¾ cup pecans or other nuts, raw or toasted, chopped in small and medium bits
¼ to 1 cup Splenda for Baking or Stevia Extract in the Raw, depending on sweetness desired
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon xantham gum
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsweetened soy milk or other milk
¼ cup salted butter or margarine, melted
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of an 8-inch loaf plan with parchment paper, then mist with spray oil.
Combine the almond flour, pecans, sweetener, baking powder, xantham gum and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk until well-blended.
Combine the eggs, milk and butter in a large mixing bowl or bowl of an electric mixer and beat or whisk at medium-low speed until thoroughly blended. Add the flour mixture and stir vigorously with a large spoon or beat at medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down, turn stir again by hand or mix at medium-high speed for 1 to 2 minutes to make a thick, sticky batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 35 minutes, then rotate pan and continue baking 35 minutes longer, until golden brown and springy when pressed in the center.
Cool in the pan for at least 5 minutes before turning out loaf. Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
NOTE: Almond flour is available at health-food stores, or you can make your own by grinding raw almonds with a coffee grinder or in a food processor. Grind until fine, but don’t overgrind or it turns into paste. Flour has more volume, so start with about ¾ of the amount you need (for 1 cup flour, start with ¾ cup nuts.)
Yield: 4 servings
From “The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food Without Gluten & Lactose,” by Barbara Kafka (Artisan, 2011). Kafka’s book is a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Book Award in the Healthy Focus category.
½ cup chicken stock
1 cup whole, uncooked white quinoa
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ lemon, cut lengthwise into 8 wedges
Pour the chicken stock into a wide bowl. Place the quinoa in a large, flat plate. Set both aside.
Place a chicken breast flat on a cutting board, skinned side up. Cut in half down the middle. Turn each half over and pull off the strip that is the chicken tender. Wrap and refrigerate for another use.
Working with one half-breast at a time, put your palm flat on each piece and cut through the breast parallel to the cutting board, creating two thin cutlets from each half-breast, for 8 cutlets. (You could also use pre-cut chicken cutlets.)
Heat 1 ½ tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Dip both sides of two pieces of breast into the stock. Then dip both sides in the quinoa. Reduce the heat under the oil to medium and place a pair of coated chicken pieces in the hot oil. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and season with salt and pepper. Continue with the remaining pieces of chicken, adding more oil to the skillet, heating it and reducing heat before continuing. Serve with lemon wedges.
What to use?
Cookbooks and magazines that feature gluten-free recipes rely heavily on these ingredients:
Almond flour. It’s very versatile for grain-free baking and cooking. Find it in health-focused stores. Or make your own in small batches by grinding blanched almonds with a clean coffee grinder or in a food processor. Pulse until finely ground, but not until it becomes a paste.
Rice flour. Available in white and brown versions. Look for superfine. It’s in health stores, or you can sometimes find white rice flour in Asian markets.
Gluten-free pasta. It’s becoming more commonly available, but brands vary widely. You’ll have to try a few to see if there’s one you like.
Gluten-free oats. Oats don’t naturally contain gluten, but they are often cross-contaminated in growing, manufacturing or storage. Look for a brand that is certified gluten-free.
Quinoa. It’s a whole grain and can be used as an alternative to couscous, which is made from wheat, or even as a form of bread crumbs. Buying pre-rinsed saves a lot of time.
Xantham gum. It’s used in many baking recipes as a binder. Look for it in health-focused stores.
Find symptom and tips lists, printable guide and other resources online:
The National Celiac Awareness Foundation: www.celiaccentral.org .
The Celiac Disease Foundation: www.celiac.org.