COLUMBIA — A young girl inspired The Rome restaurant in downtown Columbia to introduce a gluten-free menu. Because of a gluten allergy, the 9-year-old was bringing her own gluten-free pasta to the restaurant when her family went there for meals.
Seeing her struck a chord with Cory Hodapp, one of the restaurant’s owners.
“I started feeling bad," Hodapp said. "It was ridiculous that a loyal customer had to bring her own pasta.”
He sat down with the girl’s family and researched gluten-free food to come up with a gluten-free menu.
The Rome is just one of several restaurants in Columbia that have responded to an increasing demand for menus that offer gluten-free food. The demand also has resulted in gluten-free sections in Columbia grocery stores, including Schnucks, Hy-Vee and Gerbes.
According to the Nielsen Co., a consumer ratings company, sales of gluten-free food in 2009 went up 16 percent from 2008. Packaged Facts, a company that publishes market research on food, beverage, consumer-packaged goods and demographic sectors, projects that by 2015, sales of gluten-free food and beverages will top $5 billion.
The demand for gluten-free foods is mainly from people with celiac disease, who cannot tolerate gluten. But lately, people who have no negative reactions are eliminating foods with gluten from their diets to feel better and lose weight. The foods, however, tend to be more expensive.
The science behind celiac
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the small intestine becomes damaged by gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley. For those with celiac disease, eating gluten can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Reactions to gluten can range from insensitivity to intolerance, Matthew Bechtold a gastroenterologist at University Hospital, said.
Bechtold said he hasn’t necessarily seen an increase in people with celiac disease recently, though a blood test has made it easier to identify people with the disease.
Carly Dyer, who stopped eating gluten because of health problems, including an overproduction of yeast in her body, said she has no problems finding gluten-free food. She shops at Hy-Vee. The store's gluten-free section includes bread, pasta, cake and cookie mixes, dessert and frozen food, said Rock Bridge Hy-Vee dietitian Paula Vandelicht.
Dyer works at Main Squeeze, a natural foods restaurant downtown, in part because it has gluten-free food she can eat.
“You can make anything gluten-free,” she said. “There are so many options.”
Along with salads, the restaurant Ingredient offers gluten-free pizza crust and bread sticks, which are so popular that orders have to be placed every couple of weeks, said Crystal Martin, general manager of the Columbia location. Some of the demand is coming from people who don't have celiac disease, she said.
“A lot of people who don’t necessarily have diet restrictions still prefer gluten-free bread sticks,” Martin said.
The Rome orders gluten-free pasta and makes its own gluten-free pizza crust. “Pizza and pasta are the Holy Grail of what people miss most,” Hodapp said, alluding to people diagnosed later in life with celiac disease.
He said it took a lot of trial and error to master the process of making gluten-free dough, because it has a different elasticity. Gluten-free flour is made of a mix of a variety of ingredients, including rice, corn and tapioca, he said.
The gluten-free flour mix Hodapp buys is five times more expensive than regular flour. Despite the extra cost and time spent making gluten-free food, he said it’s worth it for the appreciation customers express.
“We’ve been really overwhelmed with support for it,” he said of the menu.
A diagnosis and a bakery
Ingredient orders its crust and bread sticks from Olivia’s Oven in Kansas City, Kan., a bakery that owner Carreen Blankenship opened five years ago after her daughter Olivia was diagnosed with celiac disease. When Blankenship looked for gluten-free food for her daughter and saw there was little available, she decided to make it commercially.
She had a cookie business at the time, but she decided to dedicate the new bakery to all gluten-free food. The bakery serves 24 restaurants and grocery stores and provides food to Children’s Mercy Hospital. Olivia’s Oven has seen an uptick in sales every year since it opened five years ago.
Blankenship was inspired because she didn’t know what to do for Olivia’s birthday cake and thought other parents of children with celiac disease might be facing the same challenge.
“We knew what a disadvantage it was,” she said of trying to find gluten-free food.
Later, Blankenship, her mother and her youngest daughter all were diagnosed with celiac disease, so her entire family went gluten-free and felt healthier after the change.
“It changed our lives for the better,” she said. “Our food is our medicine.”
Some of her gluten-free customers don't have celiac disease, though.
“People eat it just to simply feel better,” she said.
Hodapp has seen the same trend. Although mostly people with celiac disease order from The Rome's gluten-free menu, he said some people without the disease are curious to try it because they believe it might be healthier. He guessed that some people might believe the foods are better for them simply because they're more expensive.
Not necessarily healthier
The truth is that gluten-free food has roughly the same amount of fat and carbohydrates as food with gluten, Bechtold said.
And it's lower in fiber and not as filling as food with gluten, Vandelicht said.
Bechtold said people might believe a gluten-free diet is causing them to lose weight because it might prompt them to stop eating some gluten-containing, high-calorie foods. However, eliminating gluten will not result in weight loss, he said.
Vandelicht said the diet is ultimately meant to help people with health conditions.
“It’s not designed to be a weight-loss diet,” she said.
While eating gluten-free food won't cause harm to those without allergies, it is often more expensive and difficult to stick to.
"It's very hard to follow a true gluten-free diet," Bechtold said.
According to mayoclinic.com, those who eat only gluten-free foods are at risk of not consuming enough vitamins and nutrients.