Odds are pretty good that you know someone following a gluten-free (GF) diet. Whether as a personal, proactive health choice or a requirement to avoid getting sick, many are avoiding gluten these days.
Prepared GF food items, such as breads and pastas, can cost more than twice as much as a comparable item containing gluten. Businesses accommodating these customers, such as restaurants and grocery stores, are adjusting their price points accordingly, and finding much success.
According to a 2017 article published on the website Market Watch, the global gluten-free products market is expected to reach $33 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc. This trend is hitting close to home as many restaurants right here in the Twin Ports and surrounding communities expand their menus to cater to this demographic.
While some people insist that they just feel better when they avoid gluten - which is a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat, responsible for the elastic texture of dough - others suffer from a wide range of gluten allergies and sensitivities. At the extreme end of the spectrum is celiac disease.
Dr. Susan Anderson is a family medicine physician practicing at Essentia’s Lakeside Clinic. She shared the definition of celiac disease, some of its symptoms, and how it is treated.
“Celiac disease is an inflammatory disorder of the small intestine. It occurs with exposure to gluten and resolves when gluten is removed from the diet completely.
“The inflammation in the small intestine can lead to decreased absorption of food and vitamins resulting in malnutrition, weight loss, iron deficiency anemia, and other vitamin deficiencies. It can present as chronic diarrhea, bloating, constipation, failure to thrive, abdominal pain or irritable bowel syndrome. Some patients can also develop a rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. Diagnosis is based on symptoms in conjunction with blood testing and a biopsy of the small intestine. There is often a strong family history of celiac disease. Recommended treatment is the removal of gluten from the diet.
Additionally, some people suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This is not as severe as celiac disease and often does not lead to nutritional deficiencies. Blood and biopsy testing may be negative. However, removal of gluten from their diet results in marked improvement of ongoing stomach problems including irritable bowel syndrome.”
According to the website Beyond Celiac, an estimated 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1 percent of the population, has celiac disease. Celiac disease can affect men and women of all ages and races. A 100 percent gluten-free diet is the only existing treatment for celiac disease today.
Local family learns to go GF
Duluth resident Nicole Widdes’ two children, 16-year-old Hanna and 13-year-old Jake, were both diagnosed with celiac disease within the last year. Hanna’s illness is severe; the ingestion of even a small amount of gluten initially presents itself as an upset stomach, which can lead to joint pain, a foggy brain, and fatigue, which can last for days or weeks.
As a result, life has changed for the entire Widdes family. “At home, we’re all gluten-free,” Widdes said. The family eats a lot of farm-fresh meats, fruits and vegetables, and gluten-free grains such as quinoa, wild rice, and brown rice. Personal care items such as shampoos, hand soaps and makeup must also be carefully vetted to ensure they are GF.
It is interesting to note that gluten particles can remain in cookware and cooking utensils long after they’ve been washed and dried. Thus, investing in new cookware is an extra expense celiac sufferers often pay for their safety.
“I converted the whole kitchen – new pots and pans, strainers, everything. All of our stuff is stainless steel now,” Widdes said.
While some obvious gluten-rich foods include bread, crackers and cookies, gluten is found in a wide variety of foods, even those you wouldn’t expect, such as soy sauce and even some French fries. Foods containing wheat, barley or rye contain gluten, but the protein can also be hidden in many foods as an additive, especially in processed foods. Gluten can also sometimes be found in certain medications, personal hygiene products and more.
GF grocery shopping can be a challenge. While Widdes advises to shop the perimeter of the store for whole foods such as meat and vegetables, it can take a while to find prepared items such as breads and pastas that taste good and are still affordable. Widdes rotates her visits between Aldi, Super One Plaza, Wal-Mart, and Cub Foods. “I grocery shop all over,” she said. “Every store carries a few of the GF things we like.”
Widdes shares that she has found several go-to restaurants in the Twin Ports that she can count on to safely feed her children. Wendy’s, Chipotle, and Erbert & Gerbert’s offer quick options that offer GF choices such as baked potatoes, burrito bowls, and sandwiches prepared at a separate station.
“Chipotle has a good allergy protocol – they change their gloves constantly,” she said. “And Erbert & Gerbert’s has a separate sandwich-making station just for the preparation of gluten-free sandwiches.”
When it comes to sit-down restaurants, Widdes said her family’s favorites are Valentini’s and Pizza Luce. Yes, even carb-rich pizzas and pastas can be prepared gluten-free.
Pizza Luce opened in Duluth in November 2001. They started serving a GF menu July 2010, and have expanded their GF options to include pizza, pasta, appetizers, desserts, liquor/beer/wine, salads, and brunch dishes.
General Manager Paige Doty shared a bit about the protocol the restaurant follows to remain GF. “In order to serve gluten-free, cross-contamination must be prevented at all costs. Our managers and staff have been trained in cross-contamination avoidance. We cook all gluten-free items on our top oven to prevent gluten from falling onto gluten-free items. We have designated pizza cutters, utensils, pans and containers for gluten-free items. An allergen slip follows a food preparation ticket from start to finish so that all cooks and service staff know what items are gluten-free.”
She continued, “When starting the GF menu at Pizza Luce, the biggest expenditure we had was time. One of our owners, Laura Hansen, devoted hundreds of hours learning about celiac disease and gluten allergies, researching all the ingredients we use to ascertain if they contained gluten. For instance, our pizza crusts are made for us in a gluten-free bakery out of Minneapolis called Zen. The ingredients include organic white rice flour, organic brown rice flour, organic millet flour, potato starch, sweet rice flour, xanthan gum, salt, organic cane sugar, yeast, olive oil, and water.”
GF bread, dough and noodles cost more than twice as much as the same item in a version containing gluten. To keep their menu prices affordable, Pizza Luce takes less of a markup on these items which makes them less profitable than their gluten-containing cousins. Going GF has been beneficial for the business’ bottom line, overall, however; Pizza Luce sells between 250 – 400 GF items per week.
“We often hear how it is hard for our customers to find both gluten-free and vegan items, and they are very thankful we are able to provide that,” Doty said. “Our most common compliment would probably be, ‘Wow - this is actually really good for being gluten-free!’”
Valentini’s has built a solid reputation for serving great Italian food in Duluth for the past 12 years. And, for the last six years, they’ve offered GF products to their customers.
Owner Carol Valentini shared that her establishment offers GF pasta, several pasta sauces (their Pomodoro, Carbonara, and Pesto Cream are all GF), and GF bread. There are GF buns for burgers and sandwiches, GF entrees, salads, and even desserts, including cookies and muffins.
Like Pizza Luce, Valentini’s stores the GF products separately, handling and preparing them with separate equipment and procedures. GF pastas served at Valentini’s are made from rice flour. The preferred brands include Tinkyada, Bio Nature, and Barilla.
Going GF has paid off for Valentini’s as well. “We sell a lot of gluten-free food every day,” Valentini said. “For sure, 10 percent of people who dine at Valentini’s request GF food. Many do simply because they are reducing the impact of carbs with the pasta. Others because they truly have a gluten intolerance.”
More Options Every Day
When it comes to going GF in the Twin Ports, the challenge is becoming more manageable as more restaurants and local grocery stores expand their offerings. Widdes recommends the app “Find Me Gluten Free” before trying new restaurants, or when traveling. Prospective diners can use the app to read reviews and recommendations, and learn more about the establishment’s GF procedures and protocols.
And when it comes to preparing foods at home, Widdes shared, “Be creative. Being gluten-free doesn’t have to be limiting. Anything that is usually made with gluten can somehow be made gluten-free.”