KEITH BEATY/TORONTO STAR
Gluten-Free Food Goes Mainstream
Choices for celiacs and those with sensitivity are slowly improving
Apr 16, 2008 04:30 AM Barbara Turnbull LIVING reporter. On Friday night, Janet Dalziel did what thousands of Torontonians do every day: she picked up the phone and called 967-1111. Her pepperoni and mushroom pizza came with a gluten-free crust, which the Pizza Pizza chain introduced in 50 Toronto restaurants last month. That was a big deal for the school vice-principal, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2001 and can't consume regular wheat products. "It put me back in the real world," she says. The fast food chain is the latest in a long line of manufacturers to acknowledge the growing demand for products made without gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It's also used in many foods to add texture or flavour.
"Gluten is hidden everywhere – salad dressings, soya sauce, chicken broth, for heaven's sake," Dalziel says.
While Toronto celiacs have long had options such as gluten-free crust and pasta at a smaller pizza chain called Magic Oven, you know it's gone mainstream when Pizza Pizza jumps on the bandwagon. Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is the most common chronic autoimmune disease in the world, affecting one out of every 133 Canadians, says Dalziel, who became president of the Canadian Celiac Association last year. In celiac disease, gluten triggers the body's immune system to attack the lining of the intestine, which impairs its ability to absorb nutrients.
But many other people are seeking food products without gluten to deal with a real or perceived food sensitivity, resulting in a gluten-free boom at mainstream grocery stores and restaurants.
Pizza Pizza's chief marketing officer, Pat Finelli, says the trial at 50 GTA locations has been so successful the company will expand it across the country. The reaction has been even stronger than with the launch of whole-wheat and multi-grain crusts, he notes. Last week they sold 2,100 gluten-free pizza crusts with no advertising, other than word-of-mouth and a mention on their website.
Gluten-free products are also cropping up at stores, bakeries and cafés all over the GTA. O'Doughs is a new North York bakery that's totally gluten-free, but also supplies health food stores throughout the GTA. Hilary Davidson, the travel writer behind the Frommer's Toronto guidebook, has started a blog for people with celiac or gluten intolerances who want to dine out and travel (glutenfreeguidebook.com). Civilized societies have been growing wheat and making bread with it for thousands of years. The gluten left after rinsing out the starch in wheat is also known as seitan and is used by the Chinese and vegetarians as a "wheat meat."
Many people think they are sensitive to gluten without having celiac disease, says Dr. David Jenkins, the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Toronto.
In clinical research training, Jenkins, 65, learned that many people with gastrointestinal problems other than celiac disease appear to benefit from a gluten-free diet. But that can't be scientifically validated, due to the fluctuating nature of the conditions, says Jenkins, who is also director of the risk factor modification centre at St. Michael's Hospital.
The link between gluten and celiac disease was discovered during World War II, when the supply of wheat was disrupted. Some children with the condition improved, but after the war, their health deteriorated as wheat consumption rose.
No one knows exactly why gluten causes the reaction, but in celiacs it inflames of the lining of the small intestine, leading to chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, anemia, cramps and bloating.
A lot of other people feel that bloating and other symptoms disappear after cutting out wheat and gluten, but there are no diagnostic criteria for it, Jenkins says. He cautions against cutting all gluten out of the diet, with the exception of celiacs, for fear of eliminating foods that may contain gluten but are still good for the body.
Grocery shopping is still a multi-store marathon for Dalziel. She drives all over the city to get the best specialty products. "Even a product that was safe the last time I went grocery shopping I have to check again, because formulations will change very often," she says.
Among her favourite stops is the Montmartre Bakery in Scarborough, which makes more than 40 kilograms of rice-based dough into loaves, buns and pizza shells each Thursday, strictly by preorders and cash sales. They're working on a chocolate chip cookie, says owner Ralph Lang. Dalziel hesitates to recommend the bakery to celiacs, because it also makes regular bread and she says anyone who's hypersensitive may react to flour in the air. She's also afraid the bakery won't be able to keep up with demand once the secret gets out.
As it happens, Dalziel's cherished rice bread comes from a mix and even that bag carries a warning "May contain traces of wheat." But Lang uses separate pans and utensils for wheat and gluten-free products and no one has ever reported a reaction, he says.
Jenkins advises everyone, celiac or not, to branch out and try bread made with different grains such as quinoa, oats, corn or kamut.
"People have to be careful in deciding whether they feel better or not, because we may not be able to measure anything (to indicate) whether they are better or not," he says. "You've got to have a very good reason for cutting (gluten) out."