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Article of Interest - Food Allergies

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Bridges4Kids LogoWheat-less Wonder: Celiac Specialties of Chesterfield Twp. Serves Gluten-free Baked Goods for People with a Complex Food Allergy
by Sylvia Rector, Detroit Free Press, July 22, 2003
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Janet Armil is elated.

For the first time in more than seven years, she can walk into a bakery and buy anything she sees in the shop's well-stocked cases -- a coffee cake for the weekend, crunchy almond biscotti to dunk in coffee, rolls for sandwiches or an absolutely luscious carrot cake spread with cream cheese icing.

The store that Armil calls "heaven on earth" is the new Celiac Specialties Bakery and Coffee House in Chesterfield Township, one of only a handful of retail bakeries in North America that sells nothing but wheat-free products.

To most consumers, a wheatless bakery might not sound like a recipe for business success. But to Armil -- one of thousands of southeast Michigan residents with celiac disease -- the bakery not only offers good-tasting food she can safely consume, it represents an unprecedented level of convenience.

Because people with celiac disease must avoid the protein called gluten, found in wheat, rye, barley and perhaps oats, they can't readily buy many of the foods everyone else takes for granted.

The bakery "gives me a sense of, 'I can always get this if I need it,' " says Armil, 44, a school psychologist from Royal Oak. "It just brings an element of normalcy into life that is so deeply appreciated. We're such a minority."

You might expect baker-owner Michelle Fuller to be one of them, but she doesn't have the illness, and she didn't know anyone in her family did when she began learning about gluten-free cooking, almost by accident, eight years ago. It was purely a matter of chance.

But the way things have turned out -- with her career, her family and even celiac research -- her bakery makes for one of those stranger-than-fiction stories in which so many coincidences line up, they seem a little like fate.

Unexpected outcome
The whole thing began at a kitchen store in West Bloomfield where Fuller, an avid cook, often taught cooking classes. One day, a student asked if she might be interested in cooking for a friend -- a woman whose toddler had a condition that required a wheat- and gluten-free diet.

Soon, Fuller was going to Gail Smoler's West Bloomfield home every few weeks to prepare and freeze gluten-free meals and baked goods, using some of the special mixes Smoler bought from gluten-free food companies, some of Smoler's own recipes and some that Fuller began developing at her own home.

As Smoler's children got older and she had more time to cook, she decided to introduce Fuller to others who might also appreciate her help -- members of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group.

Before long, Fuller was getting all the business and orders she could handle, while working constantly at home to develop more and better gluten-free recipes.

Last fall, she says, she decided she must either "move on or go for it" -- stop the baking and get a "real job" outside her home, or make gluten-free baking her full-time job by opening a bakery. When she decided to do the latter, she was amazed to find a former bakery of the right size, and within her small budget, the first week she looked. She opened Celiac Specialties on June 3.

Gluten as the villain
Usually, bakers love gluten.

It's the lovely elastic substance that stretches in dough to allow the formation of little air pockets in baking, creating the light, airy textures so enjoyable in breads, cakes, muffins and other foods that rise.

But in the digestive system of someone with celiac disease, gluten acts like a poison, destroying the tiny, finger-like projections called villi in the lining of the small intestine. The villi help the body absorb nutrients from food, and damage to them can result in many other ailments, from malnutrition to anemia to osteoporosis and more.

Just this year, two major studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals found that celiac disease affects far more people than the 1-in-250 previously thought. A five-year, multicenter study, reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that 1 in every 133 Americans -- almost 1 percent -- have celiac disease. And last month, the New England Journal of Medicine called it one of the "most common lifelong disorders" in America and urged doctors to show an increased awareness of it.

Although there is no cure, eliminating gluten from the diet allows the villi to grow back; reintroduce gluten, and the damage starts again.

So the challenge for gluten-free bakers like Fuller is to create baked goods that look, feel and taste as much like wheat-based ones as possible, without using gluten-containing grains.

Cooks can avoid gluten in foods such as soups, main dishes and salads and hardly notice the difference, but leave gluten out of baking, and all the rules and results change.

Flours and surprises
The first thing cooks want to know is how anyone can bake without flour. The answer is, you redefine flour.

Gluten-free -- or GF -- bakers use flours that are blends of other finely ground grains and non-grains, combined with other ingredients that attempt to mimic the elasticity of gluten. Coming up with the right mix is one of the keys to success.

Showing a guest around the kitchen of her new shop last week, Fuller opened a white plastic barrel to reveal her basic gluten-free baking base. "We have to blend our own non-gluten flour, using rice, potato starch and tapioca starch," she says; she uses ingredients including xanthan gum and guar gum to improve texture and elasticity.

But ingredients are only part of the challenge; because GF flour doesn't behave like wheat flour, the doughs and batters don't either, so techniques have to be changed, too.

Gluten-free mixtures are stickier and heavier than wheat ones, so they must be worked in smaller quantities. While a normal bakery might make 100 pounds of dough at a time, Fuller is limited to maybe a quarter of that amount. "We have to do it a little at a time on a smaller scale; it's impossible to do big batches with this stuff," she says. "Everything is almost a batter form; it doesn't form a dough you can handle."

She isn't baking loaf breads now, but she does produce smaller breads including English muffins, which double as all-purpose sandwich buns.

Most of her products are sweets, and they're surprisingly similar to conventional ones. Filling her glass cases are moist muffins in flavors from pineapple-carrot to lemon-poppyseed, numerous flavors and styles of cookies, doughnut holes, eclairs, blondies, brownies, bars, cinnamon rolls and all kinds of cakes. A customer favorite is PMS Cake, made with high-quality chocolate, butter, espresso and sugar, she says.

She also takes special orders, and if things keep going well, she hopes to begin distributing her goods to metro area health-food stores later this year.

It's a staggering amount of work. To make it all happen, she gets up at 3 in the morning and tries to be back home in Rochester by 2 every afternoon to spend time with her husband, Brian, and three children, ages 13, 11 and 4.

And she is thankful that she has had an especially savvy, highly motivated employee to help with the store's opening -- her 18-year-old cousin, Karen Miller, whose personal experience brings the bakery's story back once more to that question of fate or chance.

Miller, her family learned last August, has celiac disease. And her diagnosis prompted tests that showed her mother, grandmother and brother have it, too.

Change brings health
Working behind the counter last week, making coffee lattes and waiting on customers, the energetic, dark-haired teenager told the unsettling story of how her condition was discovered and how things have changed since.

It was a few weeks before her senior year at Troy High School, where she was the incoming student government president, and she had just returned from a trip to Denver. She was so dehydrated, she said, that she and her mother agreed she needed to go to the emergency room right away for an IV. But blood tests there showed her to be alarmingly anemic, and she was immediately hospitalized.

She had never been ill; she was always rail thin and small for her age, but she ate all the time and never had stomach or digestive problems. She often felt tired, and she did have dark circles under her eyes, but she thought that was normal for someone as busy as she was.

When doctors told her five days after she was hospitalized that she had celiac disease -- an intestinal disorder that had robbed her body of nutrients and energy -- they told her she'd have to follow a wheat-free diet for the rest of her life.

"We said 'celiac disease?' And then somebody said, 'Aren't those the people Michelle bakes for?' " Miller recalls.

The diagnosis has changed her life, the teenager says. In the last year, after switching to a gluten-free diet, she went from 90 pounds to a still-slender but normal weight, and she grew 1 1/2 inches. She has energy now and the dark circles under her eyes are gone. And because she was diagnosed at a young age, she should be able to avoid the osteoporosis that affects both her mother, who's 54, and her grandmother.

Miller begins classes this fall at the University of Michigan, where she's enrolled in a pre-med program.

Fuller says she dreads seeing her go. "She's my official taste-tester," she says, but she knows her young cousin will come back often.

Where else can she go to sneak a chocolate-chip cookie to dunk in milk?

Celiac Specialties Bakery and Coffee House is at 48411 Jefferson in Chesterfield Township. Hours are 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday and 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. For information, visit www.celiacspecialties.com, call 586-598-8180 or e-mail mgffuller@wideopenwest.com

Contact Sylvia Rector at 313-222-5026 or e-mail rector@freepress.com.
    

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