One of the fastest growing segments of the food market these days is gluten-free products. When Joe Hitzemann started the A & J Bakery in Cranston it was because his son had a nut allergy and Hitzemann wanted alternatives for him and others like him. The gluten-free was almost an afterthought.
“When our son Kamden was born, he had a very good chance of having a nut allergy,” said Hitzemann. “The reason being is that if eczema, asthma or hay fever run in the family, you have a higher likelihood of a nut allergy and also runs higher in boys as well.”
Hitzemann has been a baker since his teens and the idea of baking things that his son couldn’t safely eat prompted him to specialize. He realized many other families were facing the same dilemma and he decided to specialize around six years ago. Those customers asked about gluten-free baked goods and Hitzemann realized there was a market for it. He didn’t realize how large that market would become.
“We had no idea,” he said.
He no longer worries about a bakery dedicated to nut-free and gluten-free products surviving. Now his biggest problem is meeting the demand.
“We ship nationwide on a daily basis and have grown from 1,000 square feet to what we are today, at 3,000 square feet in less than six years, and we are still too small,” he said.
Naturally, when a once specialized market suddenly expands beyond all expectation, one looks for reasons and some people are dismissing gluten-free foods as one of a long line of food fads to hit one of the food faddiest countries in the world. But other, more serious observers see some justification.
In the past, the relatively rare case of celiac disease drove its sufferers to seek certain foods and shun others. Celiac is serious business. It has often been misdiagnosed because the symptoms are similar to many other intestinal disorders and frequently mimics chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and other chronic conditions.
“We had a friend who was always sickly and losing weight,” said a veteran nurse. “She looked terrible, like she was going to die and we even thought she was anorexic. Then she was diagnosed with celiac, got off wheat and now she’s fine.”
The reason her friend was so sickly is that the wheat she consumed produced an immune response in her intestines. When it’s caught soon enough, the effects of celiac disease can be reversed, but if one goes undiagnosed too long, serious and long-lasting consequences ensue. The immune response causes nutrients to be unabsorbed and a cascade of symptoms can follow, including the wasting effects associated with anorexia.
Dr. David Katz, of the Yale Prevention Research Center, believes celiac disease, for all its seriousness, is not behind the explosion of gluten-free products on the market.
“There is a sizable, but still decidedly minority, population that can benefit in terms of feeling better by excluding gluten, entirely or mostly, from their diets. There is a population … for which it is vital to do so, and potentially even a matter of life and death. For everyone else, going gluten-free is at best a fashion statement,” he said.
Katz explains that gluten is a compound found in grains from the grass family, which is just about all of the grains.
“The compound is basically two proteins, gliadin and glutelin, bound together by starch [a carbohydrate],” he said.
Gluten is present in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, according to Katz, which are new and alien to the human diet.
“If one adopts the long view of paleoanthropology, grasses are not native human food. We don't digest the stalks per se, and the seeds of most grasses are too small to bother with. Grains, therefore, entered the human diet only with the advent of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent some 12,000 years ago, when their domestication led to increases in seed size,” he said.
Katz said there has been plenty of time for grains to respond to human manipulations to make more and better wheat and barley, but the human body needs more evolutionary time to respond to something alien to its evolved diet; something that was foreign to the hunter-gatherers of the Stone Age.
That helps explain the traumatic response that certain people have to gluten.
“Adverse effects can be severe, ranging from abdominal discomfort, to the manifestations of nutrient deficiencies, to an itchy rash, and over time, increased risk of intestinal cancer,” he said. “Un-addressed, the condition and its complications can be lethal.”
Gluten sensitivity is a milder but still inconvenient condition for many of the un-evolved. Katz calls it a catchall, referring to various forms of intolerance and true allergy to gluten.
But Katz said gluten is looming large for a reason. The number of people affected by it is rising, to some extent because of “detection bias,” when the health care community becomes aware of a condition and starts to look for it. The more you look, the more you see.
“In contrast, you don’t tend to detect what you don’t first consider, and for a long time, gluten sensitivity was under the proverbial radar,” said Katz.
Even further, as cited by Katz, studies based on blood kept in storage clearly indicate that actual rates of celiac disease have risen over recent decades, as much as four-fold in the past half-century.
“To my knowledge, no one knows for sure why this is happening, but there are theories,” said Katz
Among them, gluten sensitivity running in families, new types of exposure and genetic modifications have increased the gluten content of wheat and other grains and that modifications are also introducing new nutrients into the diet and some reactions with new ingredients used in processing food, “producing novel nutrient pairings, and perhaps these also function at times as an immune system trigger.”
Celiac disease affects about 1 percent of the population. Gluten sensitivity affects 5 to 10 times as many. Diagnosis should be done clinically but you can abstain from gluten and see if you feel better.
The Internet is creating the impression that gluten is poison. “This is false; gluten is not ‘bad’ for those tolerant of it, any more than peanuts are ‘bad’ for people free of peanut allergy,” said Katz.
Better food labeling makes it easier to find gluten-free products, but the widespread use of gluten warrants diligence among the seriously affected.
Which brings us back to why where you get your allergy-free baked goods is important.
“I have been a baker since I was in my teens,” said Hitzemann, who told us he met his wife while baking. “I went to Davies for baking then on to JWU [Johnson & Wales] for pastry and then worked in the industry for many years before we opened our own business. As for Amy, she also started in her teens in Wegman’s supermarket as a cake decorator and then went on to college were we met and is now a school teacher teaching baking and pastry at Davies in Lincoln. She is also our cake decorator here at the shop.”
Hitzemann said, so far, the proliferation of gluten-free products has done more to spike ingredient costs than inspire other bakeries to go gluten-free. It is an expensive and intensive way to run a business, but it comes with a guaranteed customer base that is often looking for more than just baked goods.
“We carry many different items,” said Hitzemann, “from imported pasta, crackers, candy, even candy corn.”
Hitzemann said he expects a lot of gluten-free companies to fall by the wayside when new regulations go into effect in 2014.
“That is the new FDA regulation that you need to have less than 20 parts per million in order to be considered gluten-free,” said Hitzemann, who believes that the flavor of his products reflect the experience and dedication he brings to his bakery.
“They need to try ours before they speak of flavor,” he said. “We have developed our flour and recipes to be even better than what people remember before they went gluten-free. It is not a lifestyle; it is a way of life!”