For the health of it: Gluten-free products are a fast-growing segment in food

2014-04-01T00:00:00Z 2014-04-11T14:21:06Z For the health of it: Gluten-free products are a fast-growing segment in foodBy TOM HOWARD The Billings Gazette
April 01, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Frequent migraine headaches made Krista Stetson’s life miserable from the time she was a teen-ager.

“It would put me out for two days at a time,” she said. “I had blurry vision and would throw up.”

She visited doctors, took over-the-counter pain medications and tried altering her diet, but nothing seemed to help.

She visited doctors, took over-the-counter pain medications and tried altering her diet, but nothing seemed to help.

While seeking help for her own health issues, Stetson’s mother, Tina, learned from a doctor that she had gluten intolerance. It means she has trouble digesting gluten, a type of protein that’s present in wheat, barley, rye and is a common ingredient in many processed foods.

Tina Stetson decided to try a gluten-free diet. After a while, she suggested that Krista should follow suit.

“I thought she was crazy because I’m a bread lover,” Stetson said, explaining her initial skepticism. But after giving the no-gluten routine a try, she noticed an immediate improvement in her health.

“I didn’t have one migraine after that,” she said. At one point, Stetson went off the gluten-free wagon for a short time, and the migraines returned with a vengeance.

Over the past two years, Stetson’s life has change dramatically. She went from being a skeptic of the gluten-free movement to a business owner participating in one of the fastest growing trends in the food industry.

Once relegated to the back corner of health food stores, gluten-free products have gone main stream. They’re now found in virtually every supermarket. Many restaurants feature gluten-free options, and the nation’s largest food processors have thrown their marketing muscle behind gluten-free products.

The market research firm Mintel estimates that sales of gluten-free products reached $10.5 billion last year, and the category’s double-digit growth rate is expected to continue this year.

For Stetson, a change in lifestyle led to a career change.

“We have a family friend who had a gluten-free bakery and we started buying her breads. She decided to sell, and we bought it.” The business, now known as Rae Rae’s bakery in Whitefish, has been around since 2012.

After moving to Billings recently, Stetson opened a second Rae Rae’s Bakery — both businesses are named after her daughter — at 1310 Main St. The store offers a variety of gluten-free baked goods such as bread, muffins, scones, cupcakes and frozen pizza dough. Besides selling to the public from her storefront, Stetson has also been looking into distributing her baked products to retailers.

Many of the recipes that Stetson uses were acquired from the previous owner, but she has also put a gluten-free spin on family recipes. On a February morning, she whipped together a batch of gluten-free cinnamon rolls that contain eggs, sugar, butter, yeast and other traditional ingredients. The only departure from the family recipe was the gluten-free flour made from a mixture of soy, millet, amaranth and flax. Xanthan gum, another key ingredient used in many gluten-free baked goods, acts as a binder and emulsifier, Stetson said.

Doctors recommend a gluten-free diet for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction that results from an intolerance to gluten. Over time, this reaction causes inflammation, damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents the absorption of some nutrients.

A Mayo Clinic survey from 2012 found that about 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, but an additional 18 million people are believed to have gluten sensitivity.

Stetson said she often hears from customers who have gone gluten free as a way to address joint pain and other health issues.

The explosion in gluten-free products bears many similarities to earlier food fads that have come and gone as consumers search for ways to improve their health by altering their diet. Twenty years ago, oat bran found its way into bagels, granola bars, breakfast cereals and other baked goods after some medical studies suggested it helps to lower cholesterol.

Low-fat diets first popularized during the ‘80s gave way to the low-carb craze of a decade ago, which may have peaked in popularity when fast-food restaurants began offering their burgers on lettuce leaves instead of buns. Since then the Mediterranean diet and the paleo diet — which advocates limiting food to what was available to prehistoric humans — have seen a place at the table.

Joshua Jackson, manager of Good Earth Market, said the current enthusiasm for gluten-free foods is part of a larger trend in which people are seeking healthier foods. Many people who have gone gluten free are rejecting highly processed foods. Many have discovered that eliminating gluten makes them feel better, he said.

Billings dietitian Dayle Hayes said the growing popularity of a gluten-free diet is a manifestation of Americans’ cyclical relationship with food.

People who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance clearly need to avoid foods that include gluten, Hayes said.

“People go gluten free and hope to lose weight or that it will make them feel better,” Hayes said. However, there’s little evidence that a gluten-free diet helps people lose weight, she said.

Likewise, some have claimed that a gluten-free diet can help treat a wide variety of afflictions, such as ADHD or autism. But there’s no scientific evidence tht a gluten-free diet can treat either one, Hayes said.

And just because a food says it’s gluten free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. “Gluten-free chips are still chips,” Hayes said.

Nevertheless, gluten-free foods are catching on.

When Tiffany Lach opened Sola Café in Bozeman in 2008, about 5 percent of her baked goods were gluten free. Today, more than a quarter of her baked goods are gluten free.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Lach said. “A lot of people have discovered they have gluten intolerance. But a lot of people say they just feel better by eating gluten free.”

Sola provides 20 different gluten-free products, from pastries to sandwiches, she said.

Sola’s traditional baked goods are baked with organic, non-GMO flour. And to prevent cross contamination, gluten-free products are prepared and baked using separate utensils, Lach said.

She doesn’t put much stock into the notion that the gluten-free movement is a passing fad.

“When you look at where organic food was 20 years ago, it was pretty small, but it’s grown tremendously, and big companies are buying out small organic companies,” Lach said. “I believe the gluten-free trend will continue because there are so many health benefits.”

Bruce Wright, owner of Montana Gluten Free, said the Belgrade business’s sales nearly doubled last year and could double again this year due to the popularity of gluten-free diets. Montana Gluten Free produces cereal, oat bran, baking mixes and sells its gluten-free grains to food processors.

“It’s getting more notice. We’ve gained more attention, and we’re getting on people’s radar,” Wright said.

Even people who don’t have celiac disease will appreciate Montana Gluten Free’s products, Wright said. “It’s just good food.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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