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Business booming for gluten-free products

Mary Burgdorff said she cried the first time she walked into Molly's Gluten-Free Bakery in Pewaukee, Wis., because she'd found treats her son could eat without getting sick.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mary Burgdorff said she cried the first time she walked into Molly's Gluten-Free Bakery in Pewaukee, Wis., because she'd found treats her son could eat without getting sick.

"Doughnuts and Danish are something that you can't find decent, that's gluten-free," said Burgdorff, who quit her job when her son, Martin, now 19, was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 8.

The genetic disorder causes Martin's immune system to attack his own body if he eats gluten, which is found in wheat and many other grains. Even the trace amounts in many packaged and processed foods can cause a variety of symptoms and trigger a reaction that destroys sufferers' small intestine.

Burgdorff, who now owns Molly's bakery, brought Martin hot lunches at school for years because he couldn't eat school lunches and typical lunch box fare like sandwiches was off limits.

But the hurdles Burgdorff and others face finding gluten-free foods have eased as awareness and diagnoses of celiac disease have risen; about 120,000 cases had been diagnosed by this fall, compared with about 40,000 in 2003. This year alone, more than 800 new gluten-free foods have entered the market — more than six times as many as entered five years ago.

Consumers also say the products have improved in flavor and texture as manufacturers have developed new ingredients and cooking techniques.

Experts trace the increase in diagnoses — which led to a boom in demand for gluten-free products — to the 2003 release of a landmark study by the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. It estimated nearly one in every 133 Americans, or about 2.3 million people, has the genetic disorder, although most are undiagnosed. The study helped spread awareness of the disease, according to Alessio Fasano, medical director at the center.

U.S. sales of gluten-free food, roughly $700 million in 2006, are rising 15 percent to 25 percent a year, according to research firms Mintel International and Information Resources Inc. Manufacturers expect sales to remain strong because celiac sufferers don't outgrow the disease.

Along with people who are allergic to wheat, people with celiac remain manufacturers' target audience, although some consumers believe gluten-free food may help other problems.

Kim McGowan, senior brand manager for frozen foods at Hain Celestial Group, based in Melville, N.Y., said sales growth for gluten-free foods has outpaced that for conventional items in recent years, even though gluten-free foods typically cost more.

"If you have an issue (with gluten), you are going to buy the products," McGowan said.

Needham, Mass.-based U.S. Mills LLC, which makes gluten-free cereals under the Erewhon and New Morning brands, said customers wanted more options than naturally gluten-free corn flakes, so the company began reformulating its other cereals. Gluten-free Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice now outsells the original version, said spokeswoman Katharine Schuler. She said the company noticed more shoppers phoning about gluten in its products more than 10 years ago.

Burgdorff, 45, who lives in Hartland, Wis., about 30 miles west of Milwaukee, took over Molly's Gluten-Free Bakery from Bill Hansen, who had expanded the menu from 10 to 40 items in three years, with annual sales growth of about 25 percent. The top sellers? Hamburger buns and iced sugar cookies.

Gluten-free baking is difficult, requiring a blend of rice, tapioca and other flours and the addition of substitutes such as xanthan gum.

Kay Ehlers, 37, of Whitefish Bay, Wis., said she buys cookies from Molly's as a treat for her 3-year-old son, Henry. She'll use a mix to make gluten-free brownies for him to take to birthday parties so he doesn't feel left out at cake time.

"It's good that people have the option of all these products," she said. "And it's good that brands are competing because it's improving the quality of the products."

Some gluten-free foods still taste "like cardboard," but others are indistinguishable from those with wheat, Ehlers said.

Like many in the business, Linda Kramer, 44, opened her grocery store, Gluten-Free Trading Co., in Milwaukee with a personal motivation. She had spent years scouring health food and other stores for gluten-free products for her husband and never found a place that carried them consistently.

She first offered crackers, cookies, cereal, baking mixes and pasta. The enterprise became even more fitting after her own diagnosis of celiac disease in 2000. In 2005, she moved to quarters that could hold more items, including frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets and ice cream cones. One rack holds a half-dozen kinds of gluten-free beer, which is made with sorghum instead of wheat and barley.

Sacramento, Calif.-based Dowd and Rogers, soup maker Kettle Cuisine in Chelsea, Mass., and Mary's Gone Crackers in Gridley, Calif., are all run by celiac sufferers or their relatives.

More improvements in gluten-free cooking are under way, said Carol Fenster, the Denver-area author of "1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes."

Using Expandex, a modified tapioca starch introduced in the U.S. about two years ago, imparts a texture more like wheat's, makes baked goods rise higher and improves their shelf life, Fenster said. She has developed chocolate cake, brownie and other mixes for Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie, Ore. New flour blends that include sorghum and sweet rice flour also make gluten-free baked goods more supple.

Fenster also suggests techniques like starting French bread in a cold oven. It rises as the oven warms and it dries on the outside, just a little, which provides the kind of crispy crust not usually possible without wheat.

"We miss crunchy, chewy things on a gluten-free diet," said Fenster, who is wheat-intolerant herself.

Grosse Pointe, Mich., resident Lindsay Calhoun, 31, remembers eating mashed potatoes "all day" when she was diagnosed with celiac disease five years ago.

"Year by year, it's gotten a bit better," she said.