In 1998, the Cupboard Natural Foods & Cafe in Denton began offering gluten-free products, well before the industry began to boom.
The store is in the business of knowing about different allergies and food alternatives, said manager Paul Tanis, and while gluten sensitivity and celiac disease were not commonly recognized by doctors, the store recognized some people might be allergic.
“We were well aware of gluten-free needs really before it was on the map,” Tanis said. “This is our business — knowing about different allergies and different food alternatives, and things that can cause discomforts and problems for people.”
Since then, the business of selling gluten-free products has expanded twentyfold at the store, Tanis said, as more people are being diagnosed with gluten problems and others are opting to exclude gluten from their diets for other health reasons.
Celiac disease is an allergic reaction to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye, in which the protein damages the intestines so the body can’t absorb nutrients properly. There are also people with wheat allergies and gluten intolerance, in which the body can’t tolerate large amounts of gluten, said Nancy DiMarco, a nutrition and food sciences professor at Texas Woman’s University.
“About 10 years ago, celiac disease was incredibly rare — I would say that most of the medical establishment pretty much ignored it,” she said.
Her mother had celiac disease, DiMarco said, and there were no alternative options for her while DiMarco was growing up, but now the industry has boomed.
From 2011 to 2013, the gluten-free product industry has grown 44 percent, and is now a $10.5 billion industry in the United States alone, according to a report by market research firm Mintel, released earlier this month.
The market still has room to grow, and Denton businesses are offering more gluten alternatives. At Cookies by Design, a franchised cookie shop specializing in gift baskets, all shops will offer gluten-free cookies starting on Wednesday.
“We’re excited about it,” said Phyllis Pittman, owner of the Denton location of Cookies by Design. “This is something that was needed. … For both the people who choose to do it and the people who have to do it, I think this will be great for them. They can’t just go to a bakery and get something that tastes this good and is gluten-free.”
The gluten-free cookies will be made in Plano then delivered to Denton daily to be decorated and then delivered, Pittman said. That way, the cookies are kept completely separate from flour but are customized locally. In recent years, she has gotten several calls for gluten-free cookies, and said she is happy she can now deliver.
This is the second biggest expansion the bakery has seen in the 23 years it’s been in Denton, Pittman said.
“I hope it’s a shot in the arm we need, because nobody else is doing gluten-free [cookie delivery],” she said.
The gluten-free products don’t appeal just to people with diagnosed conditions. According to the Mintel report, 72 percent of the consumers surveyed say they buy and eat the products even though they don’t have a diagnosed medical condition.
“I definitely think it’s a trend,” DiMarco said. “I think people are very concerned about GMOs [genetically modified organisms], and I think that’s what is driving a lot of this concern into the marketplace.”
At the Cupboard, Tanis estimated that the majority of the customers who buy gluten-free products don’t have a medical condition but choose other options for health reasons. The alternative breads and baked products are popular in the store, and there is an entire section dedicated to the products.
Local restaurants are also offering alternatives. At the Greenhouse Restaurant, there is a gluten-free section of the menu, which features the already gluten-free items from the regular menu as well as instructions for modifications to other meals from the menu to make them gluten-free.
The menu was introduced about four years ago after Greenhouse staff sat down with a customer who has celiac disease to go over the menu items and learn how to modify certain items to make them gluten-free, said Nicole Probst, the general manager.
“We certainly try our best, but we do have notes on the menu,” she said. “Some people can handle our tortilla chips, but some can’t since they’re fried in the same oil as the breaded chicken ... so we try to be as sensitive as we possibly can, but at the same time we do have gluten in our kitchen.”
A lot of the guests who opt for the gluten-free items do so as a dietary preference, not a necessity, Probst has noticed.
“I think it started with celiac and doctors being able to diagnose that as a serious disease, and that caught on with other people as a health trend, and I think that’s where we’ve seen a lot more of the gluten-free dining,” she said.
As more people adhere to a gluten-free diet, the market is expected to continue to grow, and DiMarco said she thinks the gluten-free products will remain an option in the market, without overtaking the popularity of wheat products.
“It’s moved into the international spotlight, and I think what has happened is there’s far more people now who adhere to a gluten-free diet than we think would be realistically, based on how many people are diagnosed with celiac disease,” she said. “I think people are just really concerned about whether they are eating something that is harmful because it’s been changed, and I truly believe that’s what’s driving this market more than anything else.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.