Gluten intolerance was a recurring theme this year among high-profile, self-anointed nutritional gurus: on her we-love-to-hate-it website GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow crowed about her seven-day gluten-free “cleanse” and BabyCakes, the fashionable vegan and gluten-free New York bakery that sells US$30-a-loaf banana bread. The View co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck promoted her book The G Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide to Middle America. And former Playmate Jenny McCarthy, who claims a gluten- and casein-free diet helped her son recover from autism, showed off the buff bod it gave her on the cover of the May Shape. So when you’re besieged by “I don’t eat gluten” demands this holiday season, know you’re not alone.
Dufflet Rosenberg, the owner of Toronto’s Dufflet Pastries, which offers gluten- and wheat-free desserts, can relate. Customers regularly come into her stores griping, “I’ve got guests who don’t eat wheat,” she says. “As for why, I’ve heard everything under the sun—from asthma to autism, every kind of digestive disorder, lupus. Some people say, ‘gluten makes me sluggish and not eating it makes me feel so much better.’ ”
The spectrum of those who are “gluten-free” is now so variegated, it’s difficult to sort wheat from chaff. At one end are celiacs afflicted with an autoimmune disorder that makes them highly allergic to the protein found in wheat, barley and rye—Western diet staples. Their number has risen fourfold in the past 50 years, according to a Mayo Clinic study published in the July Gastroenterology, which claimed that for every diagnosed celiac, 30 suffer from it undiagnosed. Also on the rise are those who are gluten “sensitive,” says Penny Kendall Reid, a Toronto naturopathic doctor. “It can have a huge impact on quality of life, causing gas, bloating, and general ‘yick’ factor,” she says. She blames the uptick on high gluten intake and increased stress, which decreases the production of digestive enzymes that break down gluten that in turn creates small inflammations in the bowel: “This working 10 to 12 hours a day, then racing around—our bodies are not designed for it,” she says. At the other extreme are “gluten-free” dabblers, among them Paltrow (who also serves up “yummy” recipes for penne alla arrabbiata and bread stuffing), and one woman who buys $9.99 gluten-free bread because she believes it’s easier to digest.
Hasselbeck, a celiac, straddled these worlds in her book, marketing it to the 99 per cent of the population that is not celiac as a guide to weight loss, clearer skin and better sleep, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Wheat Foods Council. It also ticked off some of her fellow celiacs concerned that anyone on a “gluten-free” diet will be dismissed as a faddist, says Jim McArthur, executive director of the Canadian Celiac Association. “They say, ‘I have to do this, it’s a food-safety issue, it’s a health issue, it’s not a lifestyle issue.’ ” Gluten is so institutionalized in the food chain that it’s in everything from communion wafers to matzo meal. That makes eating treacherous, says McArthur: Worcestershire sauce can be “gluten-free” or not depending on whether it’s made in the U.S. with white vinegar or in Canada with malt vinegar.
“It’s easy to go hungry as a celiac,” says Victoria Edlinger, who opened GF Patisserie in Cochrane, Alta., 15 months ago. So desperate are her customers for a good gluten-free butter tart, they’ll drive from out of province: one woman drove 10 hours from Penticton, B.C., for artisanal breads. Little surprise delicious gluten-free products, like Mary’s Organic Crackers, develop a cult following.
More frequently, though, “gluten free” is code for “taste-free,” yielding cinder-block breads, drywall crackers and bakeries that smell of regret. Simulating gluten’s texture and flavour is trickier than splitting the atom. Rosenberg is currently mentoring someone making gluten-free fresh bread. The bagels are “interesting,” she says, “as long as they’re smothered with peanut butter.”
The reflex to duplicate food that tastes good because of gluten has created a “gluten-free” bizarro universe. Whole Foods has a dedicated gluten-free bakery and is designing new stores with gluten-free aisles. General Mills issued gluten-free Rice Chex and gluten-free dessert mixes under its Betty Crocker brand. Genetically modified gluten-free wheat is currently in development—as French bakers sob into the Seine. Which means there’ll be plenty to dish out at the gluten-sensitive holiday table.