By Cindy Atoji Keene
Gluten-free foods have come a long way, said Natalie McEachern, owner of Glutenus Minimus Gourmet Gluten-Free Bakery. McEachern was diagnosed with celiac disease over a decade ago when being gluten-free wasn’t hip or trendy; today it’s a $4.2 billion market with products ranging from meatballs to potato chips. “Even those who don’t have celiac disease are eating gluten free because it makes them feel better; friends and family members also might eat gluten-free to support a loved one. There’s more awareness in general about how food can affect the way we feel,” said McEachern, 32, who started the Belmont bakery six years after she discovered that the recipes she created at home tasted better than baked goods she could buy in the store.
Q: How pervasive is gluten in our everyday food?
A: Being gluten-free means having to religiously read food labels; not being able to go to some popular restaurants; no traditional birthday or wedding cakes, and on and on. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and other grains. It can cause problems for those with celiac disease, which is a hypersensitivity to gluten that can lead to difficulty digesting food. Gluten is everywhere, including in bread, pasta and other staples. It’s a big life change for someone if they find out that they have a gluten intolerance.
Q: Why do gluten-free foods have a reputation for tasting like cardboard?
A: Gluten-free cookbooks, especially earlier ones, often called for obscure flours such as garbanzo bean floor, which might be excellent in hummus but not so great in cookies. When I first started exploring gluten-free cooking, I had to go to small local health food stores and special-order sorghum flour or other difficult-to-find flours. Some of these had a strange after-taste that couldn’t be disguised, even by chocolate or peanut butter.
Q: How is gluten-free baking different from traditional baking?
A: I really need to think through and experiment with recipes before even trying to make it gluten-free. With breads, for example, more binders need to be added, whether xanthan or guar gum. And it’s definitely a game of figuring out which flours create what textures. As far as cakes, muffins, and cookies go, you have to mix gently or batter comes out like a rock.
Q: Why are gluten-free products so expensive?
A: People are shocked by the price of items like guar gum. But creating gluten-free products is very involved; for one, manufacturers have to be certified to carry certain gluten-free labels. Protecting against cross-contamination requires testing batches for gluten and allergens, using special equipment, and regular cleaning of dedicated facilities. All of these increase production costs.
Q: Do you also try to accommodate other dietary and allergy restrictions at your bakery?
A: For so many patrons, celiac disease and gluten intolerance is just the tip of the iceberg. I see people with multiple allergies, including corn, soy, dairy, egg and nut, so I try to come up with desserts for all. We are a resource for parents with newly diagnosed children; they come in panicked, not knowing what to pack for their kid’s lunch, or where to shop. I keep a box of tissues on the counter because it can be overwhelming. I believe no kid should go without a birthday cake on their birthday.