When the notion of gluten-free diets first emerged, it seemed like a New Age food trend or the latest fad diet. But, its popularity did not fade. In fact, when it hit the main stream, manufacturers took notice and began spending millions on research, development and marketing a variety of more tasty, gluten-free products.
Stores like Trader Joe’s, New Frontiers and Wal-Mart added gluten-free selections to their shelves. Restaurants began offering gluten-free items on their menu or entire separate gluten-free menus.
David Smith, executive chef of Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar, Criollio Latin Kitchen and the new Proper in Tucson, said they began to notice a trend toward gluten-free about four years ago.
“We talked about it and then went out of our way to accommodate our people, especially at Brix,” he said. “There are many gluten-free options on our menu.”
He said the restaurant is already very mindful of where its food comes from. “We buy local, organic food and that says something about us – that we know what goes into our food.”
Still, Smith said they have had to become very aware of where gluten might be hiding. Brix stopped making its Bloody Mary with a certain Worcestershire sauce when they learned it contained gluten.
“You would never assume that a Bloody Mary was not gluten-free,” he said.
True. In the past, people knew that grain products were in their bread, pizza and beer, but today it is sometimes hidden, often used as a binder or filler in such products as ice cream, blue cheese, soy sauce and even curry powder. It is even used on dried fruit to keep slices from sticking to each other.
The federal government has gotten into the act by setting new standards, which go into effect next year. The new regulations demand a food product cannot be labeled “gluten-free,” unless it does not contain any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains.
That is good news for the estimated three million Americans who suffer from Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the small intestine to become inflamed when wheat and other grain products are consumed. Those who suffer from the disease can have persistent indigestion, chronic diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain or a number of other symptoms. Those with sensitivity to wheat can suffer similar symptoms.
The management of New Frontiers began to notice the trend about four or five years ago, says Priya Drews, marketing manager for the Flagstaff store. “People started coming to us and asking, ‘do you have anything I can eat?’” she said.
At first, the store chain offered a gluten-free section. Now gluten-free products are so mainstream they are on the shelves alongside everything else. So if a person is looking for gluten-free flour, it is in the section with the rest of the flour.
“Four years ago, we really didn’t have much for people with Celiac Disease or for those who are gluten sensitive,” she said. “As time goes on, we have better products and a greater variety. I think it is a good portion of our business.”
In addition to a wide variety of gluten-free items, Drews says the store now offers some very delicious breads and desserts.
Gluten-free products have turned into a $2.6 billion a year industry, which has increased 30 percent during the past five years and is growing.
Jeff Opper, owner of Mountain Oasis, said his restaurant has recently updated its menu and offers gluten-free items for diners. “We have several items that are acceptable for them,” he said.
Similarly, Route 66 Mini Mart owner Mick Ohly offers a gluten-free section in his store and tries to concentrate on gluten-free snack items. His customer base has steadily increased as people discover that he stocks things like very tasty gluten-free brownies and gluten-free hot dogs at the stand outside the store.
But a gluten-free diet may not be for everyone according to doctors, because cutting grains out of a diet may dangerously reduce needed vitamins, minerals and fiber. Eating a balanced diet including grain products can lower the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. FBN