healthIssue 5

Gluten-Free Food Options on the Rise

gluten free

by Dana Koster

The thing Modesto resident Jack Finley misses most about eating gluten is the convenience. When he was 22 years old, Finley was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that makes it impossible for his body to tolerate gluten.

There is no cure, and the only viable treatment option is a gluten-free diet.

Tall, lanky and whip-smart, Finley doesn’t let a restricted food regimen slow him down.  “The doctor called me up on the phone and said ‘hey, you’ve got a wheat allergy. Stop eating wheat and you’ll be okay.’ I was just really pleased that I wasn’t going to be sick anymore – I haven’t looked back.”

Though Finley may have had an uncharacteristically easy time adjusting to life without gluten, he still hates having to turn people down when they offer him food.  “I can’t just grab something at a party, and it’s difficult to refuse people. Eating is a big cultural, social thing.”

And gluten, a protein derived from wheat, barley, and rye, is in almost everything we eat. There are the obvious sources such as bread, cereal and pasta, but it’s also hidden in more obscure products like vitamins, toothpaste or lip balm, which often use gluten as a thickening or binding agent.  It’s not difficult to see why adopting a gluten-free diet can be a daunting task, leaving sufferers of celiac disease without many food choices either at home or at restaurants. And because eating with  friends and family is such a large part of our culture, this can, in turn, make it difficult for people like Finley to socialize with others.

Still, there’s no doubt that awareness of celiac disease is on the rise, and with that awareness has come an increasing abundance of gluten-free food options.  The first stop for many newly diagnosed denizens of Stanislaus County is It’s Gluten Free, a small family-owned market in Turlock. Sheryl Takata, sales assistant at It’s Gluten Free, says customers are often desperate during their initial visit to the store. “When people are first diagnosed, they come in and say: ‘I’m starving. I don’t know what to eat.’ And I say: really, you’re not going to starve, because there’s so much that you guys can eat!”

gluten free

Founded by Mike and Jackie Borges, It’s Gluten Free carries such delights as gluten-free chocolate peanut butter, whole grain bread, brown rice pasta and crumbly-topped double vanilla muffins. Once they’ve determined what to eat, Takata says, customers often become mired in worry that gluten-free foods won’t taste as good as their traditional wheat-laden counterparts. “A lot of people are really afraid of the taste.  Because it’s gluten free, so it’s got to taste terrible. It doesn’t!” To put such fears to rest, the store boasts a table filled with an ever-changing variety of food samples including nutty cucumber-dill lentil chips and deliciously moist ginger cookies that will make any gluten-free taste doubter into a believer.

And Finley says that in the four years since he was diagnosed with celiac disease, the number of local restaurants that cater to his dietary restrictions has increased exponentially. His favorite, Uno Chicago Grill, not only offers gluten-free pizza – a celiac’s dream! – but it also creates those pizzas in a dedicated kitchen, ensuring that none of the food is cross-contaminated with wheat.

Even Stanislaus County’s cupcake sensation, The Cupcake Lady (a.k.a. Troyce Fraga) has gotten in on the gluten-free action, baking up specialty confections in an ever-changing panoply of flavors like Chocolate-Caramel Cream Cheese and Snickerdoodle.  “We have a huge gluten-free following because they say it’s not like they’re missing out on anything – it has a lot of flavor.” So much flavor, in fact, that most people can’t tell the difference. “Our gluten-free people get mad because when a regular flavor runs out, people start buying theirs!”

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