Market Goes Mainstream
Candice Choi, Newsday, July 27, 2005
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For about 2
million Americans, the bread basket used to be filled with a
tasteless, brick-like loaf that crumbled when sliced.
That was the bleak world of food Bernie Mansbach found 25 years
ago when he was diagnosed with celiac disease, or an intolerance
to a wheat protein called gluten.
"In those days, the doctor just stuck his head in the door and
said, 'Don't eat gluten,"' said Mansbach, 74, of Scotia. "There
were very few commercial gluten-free foods available then."
Now manufacturers are rolling out gluten-free equivalents of
everything from pizza crusts to doughnuts, buns and cakes. Once
banished to the dusty bottom shelves of obscure grocers, the
gluten-free revolution is surfacing in the aisles of major
At Wal-Mart, "gluten-free" products are hitting the shelves this
month. The retailing giant is requiring suppliers to identify
whenever gluten is used in its private-label products, said Bob
Anderson, general merchandise manager of the company's Great
So far, 982 of the company's 1,254 products have been identified
What makes the market appetizing is that it's no flash in the
pan. Celiac disease is an incurable, lifelong condition, said
Pam Cureton, a clinical dietitian at the University of Maryland
Center for Celiac Disease.
Gluten intolerance is believed to affect about one out of every
133 Americans and legions more are sensitive to gluten. Last
year, the National Institutes of Health held its first
conference on the condition, concluding the prevalence of celiac
disease in the United States was much wider than previously
Gluten damages the small intestine of people with celiac disease
and causes symptoms that include severe cramping, diarrhea,
chronic fatigue and malnutrition. Untreated celiac disease can
be life-threatening and lead to organ disorders, according to
the Celiac Center.
The only way to manage the condition is to banish gluten _ a
trickier feat than one might expect. Wheat, rye and barley are
in products ranging from soy sauce to beer to modified food
starch. Even the slightest trace can wreak havoc on the
digestive system for weeks.
A bowl of spaghetti simply wasn't worth the consequence for
Mansbach _ but he also wasn't ready to resign himself to the
dreary world of rice cakes.
Over the years, he started making his own bread, pizza and
bagels. He sniffed out gluten-free products in obscure,
out-of-the-way grocers and had a running list of where to score
When he craved brownies, he could drive a half hour to a health
food store. If he drove farther west, he could get his hands on
that coveted commodity in the world of celiacs _ gluten-free
cereal. Mail-order food became routine; stashed in his freezer
at any given time are a half-dozen loaves of bread from a
Canadian company called Kinnickinick.
But these days, stores carry a range of gluten-free cookies,
pastas and bread, using substitutes like rice flour, arrowroot,
potato and tapioca.
"There are more products to buy than I would ever eat," Mansbach
The products are more expensive, though. A loaf of gluten-free
bread, for example, costs $3.99 compared to 99 cents for a loaf
of house brand wheat bread at Hannaford Supermarket in New York.
Hannaford, which operates 143 stores in New York, Vermont, New
Hampshire and Maine, says it is expanding its gluten-free lineup
this fall. Whole Foods Market lists more than 800 gluten-free
items, up from about 250 seven years ago.
Wegmans supermarkets in New York has a "Celiac Recipe of the
"We hear from (people with celiac) more than any other group,
because it's such a life and death issue for them," said Jane
Andrews, corporate nutritionist for Wegmans.
Still, Mansbach said many gluten-free products could be better.
"Some of the bread is still pretty bad," he said. "They try to
make it just like the real thing, but it's never going to be
exactly there. You just have to accept that."
On the Net: Center for Celiac Research:
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