July 16 2014 12:00 AM

How the rise in gluten-free dining options helps more than just celiac sufferers


You may have noticed the term “gluten-free” sneaking into restaurant menus and choices for the items at the grocery store in the past few years. Given the small percentage of Americans (about 1 percent) who suffer from celiac disease, the condition that causes gluten allergies by preventing the body from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy, you wouldn’t think that gluten-free fare would have such a demand. However, as non-celiac people find that gluten-free diets give them a healthier gut and a sense of better overall well being, gluten-free pastas, breads and other items are on the rise. If you don’t have a gluten allergy, though, what does it mean for you?

Wheat, spelt, rye and barley all contain gluten and are primarily found in breads and pastas. People suffering from celiac disease who eat gluten could have joint pain, stomach and intestinal upsets, anemia, infertility or any of a number of seemingly unrelated symptoms. Those diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity have a difficult time finding processed foods without the specific protein that makes up gluten. But times are getting better due to non-celiac consumers wanting to try a gluten-free diet.

“When gluten-free products first (became popular), we made an effort to put them all in one area,” said David Finet, general manager of the East Lansing Food Co-op. “But now the selection is so big that the products are placed with like products.” The co-op is in the process of labeling all its products as organic, gluten-free and soy-free so that it’s easier for members and customers to find what they are looking for.

Gluten-free dining is a growing trend, and companies are finding a niche market. But producing a gluten-free food is not a guarantee that the food will really be gluten-free and safe for a celiac sufferer to consume. Oat, although glutenfree, is usually suggested to be avoided because it is usually grown near wheat, harvested by the same machine or processed in a factory where wheat and gluten-filled grains are processed. The East Lansing Food Co-op carries two varieties of Bob’s Red Mill Oats; one is made in a designated gluten-free facility while the other is made at their normal processing facility.

Rice, corn and so called “ancient grains” such as millet, amaranth and quinoa are gluten-free, but again must be processed in a factory with a machine that has never seen a gluten product or has been completely disassembled and reassembled and cleaned after a gluten product is processed.

According to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Diabetes Center, people diagnosed with celiac disease should avoid all processed foods until they become familiar with the hidden types of gluten in supermarket and restaurant meals. Food starch or modified food starch are terms that might be seen on the side of the box that will tell you whether gluten is in the processed foodstuff. Dextrin is usually thought of as gluten, but as long as the food is produced in the U.S., the dextrin is produced from corn, which is gluten-free.

Locally, there are many gluten-free foods on the shelves of Meijer, the East Lansing Food Co-op and other local supermarkets. In most restaurants, you should be able to find one or two glutenfree products.

WOW (With Out Wheat) in Okemos makes gluten-free pizza and is the only certified gluten-free restaurant in the area. The restaurant is attached to Guido’s Premium Pizza, a Detroit-based franchise. WOW is the only restaurant in mid-Michigan that has gone through this additional certification and can call itself a National Foundation for Celiac Awareness-certified gluten-free restaurant. Most impressive: All of its products are made on-site in Okemos.

Steven Pollard, owner of WOW, said he started making gluten-free pizza for his stepmother, who has celiac disease. He opened the pizzeria about seven years ago and is celebrating his fourth year in the separate gluten-free kitchen this month. He has the highest-ranking gluten-free pizza in the area on the app Find Me GF, a guide to local establishments that carry gluten-free goods. Pollard said people drive from as far away as Royal Oak, Grand Blanc and Kalamazoo because of that app.

WOW’s menu is extensive, including gluten-free Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, pastas, deli sandwiches and baked sweets. And the prices are sensible — the deep-dish pizza starts at $10.95 while the baked goods range from $1.50 for a cookie to a whole loaf of freshly baked gluten free bread for around $6. This is the place where a person diagnosed with celiac disease can eat and not worry about cross contamination.

The FDA has ruled that products labeled gluten-free were permitted to contain no more than 20 parts of gluten per million, but that is not carried over to restaurants. Pollard said he has a separate knife for cutting onions and tomatoes. He even has special knives he uses for his gluten-free and dairy-free loaves.

If you are interested in finding gluten free products, check out glutenfreeregistry.com, an online registry for gluten free Michigan restaurants and bakeries.

There is a certification process that restaurants can go through to become a certified gluten-free restaurant.

As with any food trend, eating gluten free is about awareness of what you put in your mouth. With all the gluten-free options, can you guarantee that it’s the lack of gluten that is making a healthy difference in your life or is it that you are just more aware of what they are eating and are eating fewer processed foods?

Danielle Welke is the founder of Mid- Mitten Homemade (mid-mittenhomemade.com) and the organizer for the Mid- Michigan Food Club.