Half baked? Local bakery owners respond to recent study negating gluten sensitivity

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Stevie G’s is one of several local gluten-free bakeries, but owners Sue Gass (left) and Stephanie White made a conscious decision to stay away from muffins and cupcakes, and provide snacks like power bars, whoopie pies, and ice cream sandwiches.  Rammelkamp Foto Stevie G’s is one of several local gluten-free bakeries, but owners Sue Gass (left) and Stephanie White made a conscious decision to stay away from muffins and cupcakes, and provide snacks like power bars, whoopie pies, and ice cream sandwiches. Rammelkamp Foto

We all know at least one person who orders lettuce-wrapped burgers, declines invitations to pizza nights, and swears up and down that you’ll never miss the gluten in the fabulous homemade brownies they bring to the office party. Ever since a 2011 study revealed that non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) could be the root of a whole host of health issues, the gluten-free trend has been spreading like wildfire. Here in Charlottesville, restaurants like Burtons Grill have rolled out extensive menus for guests with food allergies and sensitivities, and everywhere you look it seems there’s a new muffin or granola bar with “gluten free!” plastered in bright colors on the packaging.

But hold up a second. The red-hot gluten-free craze just got hit by a wet blanket. A 2013 study conducted by Monash University gastroenterologist Jessica Biesiekierski—the same researcher who published the 2011 study supporting gluten intolerance—recently took the Internet by storm when she found that the vast majority of participants, all of whom claimed to be gluten intolerant, had no discernable difference in symptoms when they ate a diet high in gluten. All 37 participants, however, experienced improved symptoms from the diet low in FODMAPs, a group of carbohydrates that the small intestine absorbs poorly, and when fermented can lead to gastrointestinal issues. 

“We believe non-celiac gluten sensitivity probably does exist,”  Biesiekierski wrote, “but it’s not very common and we have a lot more to do until we fully understand [gluten].”

Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, barley, and rye, and sensitivity to it has been linked to symptoms ranging from irritable bowel syndrome and joint pain to headaches and congestion. Health blogs across the nation blew up with arguments for and against the new study’s conclusion, and a few local gluten-free bakers are hitting back, claiming their own personal experiences and those of their customers are enough proof that gluten intolerance is real.

Stevie G’s Gluten Free Bakery owner Stephanie White eliminated gluten from her diet about 10 years ago, in solidarity with her gluten-intolerant daughter, who struggled with the transition into a diet free of traditional bread, pasta, and snack foods. She said she immediately had more energy throughout the day, and the difference in brain clarity was like night and day.

“Turns out I’m gluten intolerant, and I never ate it again,” White said, adding that she can pick up on cross-contamination almost instantly, and claiming that even the smallest amount of gluten will make her sick.  

Other family members followed suit, and White’s sister Sue Gass said her long-time joint pain improved dramatically after she stopped eating gluten. Both sisters said they just feel better overall, and though White’s now 20-year-old daughter occasionally splurges and goes back to her old diet (only to experience regret and return to gluten-free eating, White said), White and Gass said they don’t even remember what real bread tastes like, and they have no desire to reintroduce gluten into their diets.

White started tinkering with gluten-free recipes about seven years ago, when she got tired of watching her then teenage daughter isolate herself by not eating the same foods as her friends. Her goal was to create treats with the same flavors and textures as their gluten-containing counterparts, so no one would know the difference and her daughter would feel less ostracized.

“We socialize around food every day, and that’s really dampened when you have a food allergy,” White said.

Since launching the home-based gluten-free bakery with Gass in 2012, White said she’s been trying to hone in on products that everyone can enjoy, whether you eat gluten or not. She and Gass are in the kitchen every day, cranking out batches of power bars, seven-layer dessert bars, brownies, whoopie pies, and ice cream cookie sandwiches for wholesale. So when the Internet erupted with news about Biesiekierski’s latest study, White took it with a grain of salt. She doesn’t expect it to affect either her business or her way of life, and the market indicates that businesses like Stevie G’s have nothing to worry about in the coming years.  According to market research firm Mintel, the $10.5 billion gluten-free food and beverage industry grew 44 percent from 2011 to 2013. Mintel reported that 75 percent of gluten-free consumers who don’t have celiac or NCGS eat the products because they believe them to be healthier, and the firm predicts another 48 percent jump in the market before 2016.

Bake Love Bakery owner Melinda Buchanan, who specializes in wedding cakes to accommodate food allergies and intolerances including gluten, soy, dairy, egg, and xanthan gum, wasn’t impressed by the study either. She noted that it was limited to people with only irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, and wasn’t a large enough sampling of people to see comprehensive results.

“I believe there is much work to be done in this field of research before great claims can be made as to what exists or doesn’t exist, and how we would like to label their existence,” Buchanan said, adding that not only is she gluten intolerant herself, but she has several other “trigger foods” that mimic gluten symptoms if eaten in certain quantities and combinations.

“I think the even bigger question these days is, what’s happening in the last few decades to our food supply that so many individuals, children and adults alike, are having so many issues with food?” Buchanan said.