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Gluten-free Chicago

Is gluten aversion a medical condition or a trend?

Photograph: Martha Williams
By David Tamarkin |

Johanna Van Dorf will tell you that her gluten-free baked goods may help make your skin clearer, make you feel less tired and even help you lose weight. “I know from talking to the public about this that people really feel better,” she says. But she’s not exactly speaking from experience. Because Van Dorf doesn’t suffer from celiac disease, nor is she gluten intolerant, and she doesn’t subscribe to a gluten-free diet. She simply has a new business—Defloured Bakery—that caters to folks who do.

She’s hardly the only one. Bakeries and restaurants are giving in to customer requests (and business opportunities) for providing gluten-free options. Some, such as Perennial, quietly keep gluten-free items on their menus at all times; some, like Ina's, offer gluten-free dishes that can be ordered in advance; and some restaurants, such as Mity Nice and Feast, have put together full-length gluten-free menus, available at all times.

The people who take advantage of these offerings usually fall into one of three categories of gluten aversion: Those who suffer from celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack the small intestine when gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, is ingested; those who are gluten intolerant, a relatively new diagnosis for people who do not test positive for celiac disease and yet experience symptoms (stomach pain, lethargy) when gluten is consumed; and those who could be called “gluten-abstainers”—people who experience little to no symptoms from eating gluten, yet who have cut it out of their diet anyway to reap supposed benefits such as weight loss or increased energy. It’s these last two categories that have grown in the recent past, according to Dr. Greg Cohen, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern.

“It seems to be not a diet fad but a dietary fad,” he says. Cohen says that he’s seen a big increase in nonceliac patients asking about gluten issues in the past six to 12 months. “I feel like I have this conversation with patients way more often than I ever used to.”

“For a long time I thought this was not a real phenomenon,” he adds. “I thought this was just a side effect of the fact that avoiding gluten will also make most people avoid carbohydrates. Sometimes simply avoiding carbohydrates makes people feel better because carbohydrates tend to cause a lot of gas and bloating and abdominal discomfort…. But there are definitely people for whom that’s not true. There’s something real going on here but it’s poorly understood.”

Perhaps it’s poorly understood by doctors. But entrepreneurs seem to have it figured out. Van Dorf says that it was the thought of all those gluten-intolerant kids not being able to eat birthday cake that got her into the gluten-free business—“I love the idea of providing treats that…a child with celiac can enjoy,” she says. But she’s also well aware that the catapulting of a gluten-free diet as a lifestyle trend will work in her favor. “You’re hearing about it more and more…Gwentyh Paltrow is on a gluten-free diet…Betty Crocker has gluten free items on the shelf…it’s very exciting.”

Trends wane, of course. And it’s hard not to compare gluten aversion to the famous (now perhaps infamous) carb aversion of a few years ago, as both trends involve shunning traditional bread. But for now, gluten aversion shows no signs of stopping. After Van Dorf posed for a photo shoot at TOC’s offices, Erica Gannett, one of our photo editors, stopped by to shake the baker’s hand.

“Thank you,” Gannett said.

“Are you celiac?” Van Dorf asked.

“No,” Gannett said. “I just…” she gestured to her face and body.

“Hear it all the time,” Van Dorf said.

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