|Gluten issues lead some on a search for local alternatives|
A protein found in wheat, barley and rye, gluten can find its way into breads, pastas, cakes, gravies, processed lunch meats, beer and other malt-based drinks, many packaged snack foods and even medicines and vitamins that use gluten as a binding agent.
In 2004, Heather Feierabend's four-year-old daughter was underweight and suffering from chronic stomachaches. Her doctor advised eliminating gluten, which quickly helped, so Feierabend decided to make the household completely gluten-free. Her toddler son also seemed to fare better without gluten, a protein that occurs in wheat and other grains, and family solidarity meant the kitchen would be safe from cross-contamination. The lifestyle change could have been a nuisance for Feierabend, an avid cook and food enthusiast. Instead, she took it as a personal challenge.
“It was like somebody had double-dog-dared me,” Feierabend says. “My family was not going to be deprived, and I was not going to be defeated.”
Since then, the working mother of two has become a trove of information about where to find gluten-free menu items, what new products to buy (or avoid) and how to retool recipes children crave, including king cake, beignets and fried mozzarella sticks. She's quick to lend a hand to others she finds in the gluten-free grocery aisle. Today, she has a lot of company.
“There are more people talking about gluten-free and adopting the lifestyle in Baton Rouge than ever,” Feierabend says. “There are still plenty of challenges, but it's changed a lot. There are a lot more resources.”
Consumers nationwide are drawn to the gluten-free life for a variety of reasons. Many suffer from celiac disease, a condition in which consuming gluten damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients. Others don't have an official celiac diagnosis, but believe eliminating gluten improves their digestive heath. Some give up gluten because they suffer from wheat allergies. And another group, including low-carb and “paleo” dieters, pass on gluten because they believe it contributes to modern health problems.
Members of Baton Rouge's gluten-free community once had to work hard to find each other. Now, they're comparing notes on local Facebook groups about a range of issues, including which local restaurants have acceptable menu items and which stores offer the best gluten-free products at the best price.
“Going gluten-free definitely takes some thought,” says Julie Baron Sheffield, a contract engineer who founded a Facebook group called Gluten Free Baton Rouge. “A person might start by eliminating breads and pastas, but then they discover there's all this hidden gluten everywhere. Rice Krispies seem like they'd be okay, but they've got barley, and barley has gluten. You can have Fritos, but not Chili Cheese Fritos. You can have Lays, but not Baked Lays. And soy has gluten, so you can eat most sushi, but with gluten-free soy sauce.”
Sheffield's household has been gluten-free since 2009, when her daughter Sophie was diagnosed with celiac disease. Sheffield and her other daughter Anna also felt better eliminating gluten, so the whole household went gluten-free. In the past three years, she's seen an uptick in the number of people who understand about gluten intolerance.
“It's definitely gotten easier,” says Sheffield. “Even though people still think you're crazy sometimes, I've found that teachers and schools are more understanding, and people are just more familiar with it.”
Baton Rouge-based opera singer and blogger Rachel Cobb-Chamness decided to go gluten-free several years ago in response to a wheat allergy. She started a blog (untilthethinladysings.blogspot.com) to share her original gluten-free, low-carb recipes. She says many people who adopt a gluten-free lifestyle to feel better often make the mistake of eating high-carb gluten-free foods, like breads, cookies and pastas made with potato, rice or corn flour.
“These things can be really expensive and still make you feel sluggish,” says Cobb-Chamness. “I'm trying to get people to think about focusing on foods like local meat and produce rather than relying just on processed gluten-free substitutes.”
Dining out without
For diners with gluten intolerance, wading through a restaurant menu can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield. Even trace elements of gluten lurking in skillets or on cutting boards can trigger an upset stomach in those with severe conditions, which makes eating out particularly difficult. But more restaurants are responding to the expanding number of gluten-free consumers with new menu items and higher tolerance.
For years, the local gluten-free community has shared notes about where to eat out in quarterly meetings of Celiacs of Baton Rouge. Now they also do it through social media like the Facebook group Julie Baron Sheffield launched, Gluten Free Baton Rouge. “There were plenty of gluten-free sites out there, but I wanted to start one that was focused on Baton Rouge and what kinds of resources we have in the community,” says Sheffield.
Members post comments about ongoing challenges, including the pizza-centric menu at children's birthday parties, and potluck dinners, where it's impossible to analyze ingredient lists. They also weigh in on the growing options on supermarket shelves and in local restaurants.
The only restaurant to currently make the group's “A List” of eateries is Truly Free Bakery and Deli, the locally-owned Perkins Road restaurant that has become a haven for the gluten-free set as well as those with other food allergies. Anything on the menu can be prepared gluten free. The “B List” includes restaurants that have separate gluten-free menus or multiple menu items, including chains like BJ's Brewhouse, PF Changs, Mellow Mushroom and the Melting Pot, and local eateries like Thai Kitchen, Nino's and DeAngelo's Casual Dining.
“Sometimes servers are knowledgeable and understand that some diners are going to need to have their food prepared in a clean wok or pan,” says Sheffield. “Others still don't get it.”
One of the biggest hurdles for gluten-free diners in South Louisiana is fried food, whose breading often includes wheat-based flour. There are signs this could be changing. Casamento's the classic New Orleans restaurant on Magazine Street known for its oyster loaf, features only gluten-free fried food.
And that other pesky dish for the gluten intolerant, pizza, is also broadening its scope. The successful New Orleans-based delivery chain Naked Pizza has opened dozens of locations nationwide to sell its gluten-free, probiotic, affordable pizza, including spots in Lafayette and Metairie. Plans fell through a few years ago for a Baton Rouge location, but local diners are still hoping one will land in the Capital City.
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