The popularity of eating gluten free continues to drive product development

For some it’s a fad, for others it’s a medical necessity, but for farmers a growing interest in gluten free may be an opportunity to explore new crops

Inside the cosy St. Boniface storefront that houses Cocoabeans Bakeshop you’ll find breads, pastries, buns, sandwiches, cookies and cakes alongside steaming coffee and tiny tables, much like any bakery across the province.

But there is one thing that isn’t on the menu — gluten.

Owner Betsy Hiebert, along with her three children, are living with celiac disease, a condition defined by a lifelong intolerance to a composite protein found in wheat, spelt, rye and barley, commonly called gluten.

“I started off going to farmers’ markets, trying to get a feel for the gluten-free market… to see if there was enough interest, what people were looking for, what they liked,” said Hiebert. “And it turned out a lot of people were looking for really good-tasting gluten-free bread.”

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woman in her bakery

After building a commercial kitchen in her basement and developing a solid client base, Hiebert moved to her current Tache Avenue location a year and a half ago.

“Now this might be too small soon too,” she said.

And Hiebert is far from the only entrepreneur to successfully venture into the gluten-free market.

“In Canada right now, the gluten-free industry is worth $90 million and it’s growing. They predict 10 per cent growth year after year until 2018,” notes Roberta Irvine of the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie.

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At the recent Great Manitoba Food Fight — a competition for new food products — 50 per cent of the entrants promoted their product as being gluten free, even if the product was made with ingredients that don’t naturally contain gluten, such as olives.

“They are recognizing that this is an important selling feature,” said Irvine, adding that about 15 per cent of the ideas that make their way into the Food Development Centre are now for gluten-free products.

But while the number of gluten-free foods is growing rapidly, the number of people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities is not growing at the same rate. Only about one per cent of the population has the disease.

“Gluten free is a huge fad for weight loss, which has nothing to do with our medically required diet,” said Janet Dalziel, former president of the Canadian Celiac Association and a current volunteer with the organization. “Except that it helps us in that the market is perceived to be bigger and manufacturers are then more interested in providing stuff for us.

“The downside of that is that the condition is taken less seriously, when you go to eat out in a restaurant and you ask about (gluten) they roll their eyes and say, yeah yeah, yeah,” Dalziel said.

Diverse clientele

Hiebert notes about 60 per cent of her clientele has celiac disease, while roughly another 20 per cent suffer from gluten intolerance. However, the remaining 20 per cent are purchasing gluten-free foods for a perceived health benefit.

But unless you have celiac disease and need to cut gluten out of your diet for medical reasons, eliminating something like wheat could actually have a detrimental effect on one’s health.

“Our dietitians would say that they are at risk for some nutritional deficiencies, depending on what they substitute,” Dalziel said, adding folic acid and B vitamins are largely found in enriched flour.

Although other grains also contain gluten, wheat has been singled out for criticism in recent weight-loss books, like Wheat Belly by William Davis. Response from wheat growers and bread manufacturers has been swift and unsurprising.

“There is no magic bullet for achieving or maintaining a healthy weight and blaming a single food or food group for the obesity epidemic is a gross oversimplification,” said the Washington-based Grain Foods Foundation, which represents milling and food-processing companies, at the time of Wheat Belly’s release.

But even as new gluten-free products multiply and gluten-free crops like quinoa expand, the cost of such products has only decreased slightly for those who rely on gluten-free foods to stay healthy.

Expensive

A loaf of bread at Cocoabeans Bakery costs about $9.50, not an unusual price for fresh bread in the gluten-free marketplace.

“There is a tax break for people who have to follow this diet… it’s a medical cost,” said Dalziel. “Except that is such a pain to calculate, you have to keep every receipt, you have to know what a regular box of spaghetti costs… and you’re only allowed to claim the amount that you consume, so if you’re cooking that spaghetti for the whole family because it’s easier than cooking two meals, you can’t claim the whole thing. It’s just so much trouble.”

She also warns that not all gluten-free products are made equally and it’s important to look at ingredients and nutritional values on ready-made items.

“I can remember when there were no choices. I can remember the day after my diagnosis, feeling completely overwhelmed and ignorant. I went to the supermarket and found nothing and just burst into tears; I thought I was going to starve to death. But you learn to cope and you learn to start with regular, ordinary whole foods like meat, and fruits and vegetables and fish,” she said. “Only recently has convenience returned… and it’s been wonderful.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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