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The Glories of Gluten-Free
As more Americans are diagnosed with celiac disease, the demand for gluten-free menu items is becoming greater and greater.
Celiac disease drives demand for gluten free menus

Margot Chapman, once known in the marketing industry as “the queen of grains” for her work with such companies as Kellogg’s and General Mills, says she searched for years for an answer to her health issues. She had trouble digesting foods and seemed unable to find a solution to her problem, no matter how many doctors she consulted. Fed up, she switched her entire medical team—a move that led her to finally discovering what had been dogging her for years: an intolerance to gluten, a type of protein typically found in wheat, rye, and barley, and a substance included in an incredible number of baked products and other foods. Armed with this information, she made a beeline to the nearest Whole Foods supermarket, where her new nutritionist advised her she’d find plenty of gluten-free products. “No exaggeration—I felt 100 percent better within 24 hours,” says Chapman, who now owns a new-products consulting company and is a partner in Swirlz Cupcakes, a specialty bakery in Chicago.

It’s no surprise, then, that Chapman insisted Swirlz Cupcakes include gluten-free items on its menu daily. “The first week we opened, I spotted a little boy coming out of our shop with a cupcake in each hand,” she says. “When I asked him why he was so excited, he told me he was celiac. He said it felt good to walk into a normal bakery and be able to buy something that looked just like what all the other kids eat.”

In recent years, Chapman’s story and others like it have become increasingly common. According to the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, 1 in 133 healthy Americans has been diagnosed with celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. When a person who has celiac disease consumes gluten, the individual’s immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients into the body. Undiagnosed and untreated, celiac disease can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders, as well as osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions, and, in rare cases, cancer.

The only treatment for the disease is to follow a completely gluten-free diet. Thankfully, celiac sufferers—and those simply interested in decreasing the amount of wheat-based products they consume—are finding more gluten-free products on the market. According to a March 2007 survey by the market research company Mintel, 8 percent of the U.S. population looks for gluten-free products when it shops. Nielsen Co., which tracks gluten-free food in U.S. grocery, drug, and mass merchandiser stores, reports that the gluten-free sector increased 20 percent in the 12-month period ending June 14, 2008, to $1.75 billion from $1.46 billion a year ago.

The rising interest in gluten-free has also extended to eating out. In fact, there are entire Web sites devoted to sharing information about gluten-free restaurants. The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, for example, offers a service known as the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program, a listing of restaurants across the country that offer gluten-free items on their menus. The Gluten Free Registry provides a quick search guide to help consumers find restaurants, bakeries, caterers, and grocers that offer gluten-free items.

A number of nationwide chains have already devoted attention to the trend. Lone Star Steakhouse, for example, makes recommendations on its menus geared specifically to the gluten-sensitive. Suggestions include ordering mesquite grilled steaks and chicken without seasoning or lemon butter; ordering burgers and sandwiches without a bun, steak fries, or seasoning; choosing the baked sweet potato without butter or cinnamon; and ordering salads without dressing, croutons, tortilla strips, or bacon. The Macaroni Grill offers suggestions on its menus for a number of food sensitivities, ranging from egg and fish allergies to gluten-free, advising those with wheat sensitivities to avoid baked items like croutons and biscotti and certain seasonings.

© istockphotos.com, Jill Chen
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