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Eight Forty-Eight

Gluten-Free Gets Better?

Check out the baked goods at your local grocery store and you'll probably find some of them labeled “gluten-free.” Gluten is what makes dough hold together. Unfortunately, it also makes some of us sick. Eight Forty-Eight food critic David Hammond speaks with people who are researching gluten-related health problems, as well as those seeking better ways of making gluten-free baked goods.

Fatigue. Stomach pain. Diabetes. Hair loss. Infertility. Depression. Liver damage. Seizures. These are just some of the symptoms of celiac disease, a condition shared by up to 2% of Americans who cannot tolerate the gluten in wheat. The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center works with those who have this disease; it's the first facility of its kind in the US, founded in 2000 by Dr. Stefano Guandalini, who explains celiac disease.

GUANDALINI: It's an autoimmune disorder that's triggered in individuals who are susceptible by the ingestion of gluten and leads to damage to the small intestine but also to other organs.

DAVID: Is there a cure for celiac disease?

GUANDALINI: Not yet, but there is a very effective treatment, which is a gluten-free diet. Eliminating completely gluten from the diet – and the elimination has to be really complete, because minimal amounts are enough to trigger and maintain the inflammatory response in the intestine – then the regression of the disease is complete. This is one of the few diseases that give a lot of satisfaction to the doctors of chronic diseases because you eliminate the gluten and you really, especially for children, have a completely different, better child, usually within weeks of the elimination of gluten from the diet.

With increasing awareness of celiac disease, many local bakers are responding to increased need for wheat-free products. Michelle Garcia of Bleeding Heart Bakery describes some of the challenges of baking without gluten.

SFX of baking pans clattering

GARCIA: You have to find what you can make gluten out of that's not real gluten, kind like faux gluten, like bringing it out of rice flour or fava bean flour. And also, it's extraordinarily expensive to play with. The ingredients are more than twice as expensive even than organic ingredients.

SFX of Lisa and Kurt forming dough: Deerfield's

At Deerfield's Bakery, Lisa Albertson and Kurt Schmitt are making gluten-free baguettes.

ALBERTSON: Baking gluten-free means that you are not using wheat, barley or rye flours.

DAVID: If you can't use wheat, what kind of flours do you use, Kurt?

SCHMITT: We use things like quinoa, rice flour, rice bran, sweet rice flour…

ALBERTSON: We use coconut flour, we do use primarily brown rice flour, and then you need your starches like tapioca starch and potato starch, and for binder you need xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is going to hold that crumb together.

O'CARROLL: I have about five different mixes.

Rose O'Corroll of Rose's Bakery in Evanston is one of several in her family with celiac disease.

O'CARROLL: We have the typical one which is rice, potato, tapioca starch and sorghum, and that is pretty standard throughout the gluten-free community. I also for breads use garbanzo bean, mung bean, potato starch and tapioca starch, and our French bread and our pizza crust are just rice and tapioca.

Rose put out a platter of biscotti. I was interested to see if I could taste the difference between these gluten-free biscotti and the usual, wheat-flour variety I've been munching for years.

SFX of David chomping away: Rose's

DAVID: What impresses me here is the crunchiness of the biscotti. Now, one of the things I've noticed with some gluten-free products is a kind of heavy, if I may say so, a kind of heavy mooshiness that comes, I guess, from the lack of gluten. However, these biscotti are very crisp,

The biscotti were so good, I started wondering if maybe I should switch to gluten-free baked goods, because, you know, the stuff I tried was pretty tasty, and even if I don't have celiac disease, it's probably better to go gluten-free any way, right…? Actually, no, that's wrong, says Carol Shilson, who also has celiac disease and is Executive Director of the Celiac Disease Center.

SHILSON : There's a myth out there that going gluten-free is healthier for you, and really unless you have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant or have a wheat disease, it really isn't healthier for you. The flours that are gluten-free are not fortified like wheat is with extra vitamins and most gluten free foods are higher in calories because they don't have the elasticity of glutens.

Still, the future of gluten-free baking is looking much more delicious.

SHILSON: Just 5 years ago, most things just tasted like cardboard, so they've come a  long way in bringing the flavor around, and some are now looking for ways to make them lower fat and healthier for you and keeping the taste up there.

DAVID: So, even if you have to avoid wheat, you're definitely going to find some fine gluten-free baked goods in Chicago.

O'CARROLL: Everything we make here has to taste good. It can't be “good enough” to be gluten-free. You have to taste it and say, “Wow, this is great.”
David Hammond is a contributor to Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago, and he moderates, the Chicago-based culinary chat site.

If you feel weird after eating wheat, you might want to call the Celiac Disease Center at 773-702-7593.

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