Utah businesses find selves at hub of a burgeoning response to celiac disease.
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Provo • After becoming ill with a disease doctors couldn't diagnose, Tim Lawson could no longer work. He declared bankruptcy and saw his house foreclosed on before realizing he had celiac disease.
Then he fought back and remodeled his basement into a bakery.
"We have gone from zero to massive growth 1,500 percent within our first year," Lawson said. Products from his company, New Grains Gluten-Free Bakery, can be found on supermarket shelves throughout Utah, and he is in talks to distribute with a local home-delivery dairy.
"We didn't start this to become millionaires. We started this to save my life."
Life has become easier for those with the digestive condition celiac (SEE-lee-ak) as larger distributors pick up on the need for gluten-free products.
A few years ago, consumers with the disease triggered by consumption of gluten had to check, ingredient by ingredient, while shopping to avoid the health effects of eating the protein.
Today, walk into almost any grocery store along the Wasatch Front, and there may be an entire aisle of gluten-free goods.
Jennifer Dexter, a Lindon resident, was diagnosed with celiac disease eight years ago.
"When I was first diagnosed, it was just so hard to find good products," she said. "It's a lot easier now than it used to be, that's for sure."
Associated Food Stores (which distributes to 600 retailers in eight Western states) began incorporating gluten-free products into its selection in 2009.
"Our goal by the time we go into October is to have all 47 stores with a minimum of 16 feet of [shelf space]" dedicated to gluten-free products, said Steve K. Holm, a director of operations at Associated Food Stores in Salt Lake City.
Holm said Associated Food also partners with more than a half-dozen local bakeries to bring in fresh products and is not afraid to try new vendors among the hundreds available nationwide.
"I would say right now gluten-free as a whole is probably a $100,000-a-year commodity to us. It's not an awful lot, but I think that will grow by the hundreds of thousands [of dollars] each year," Holm said. "Gluten-free is here to stay."
Last year, what is thought to be the largest gluten-free expo in the nation was held in Sandy.
"Total attendance was just around 6,000," said Debbie Deaver, expo founder and coordinator whose quick research shows the next-largest drew about 1,500 people to an event in the Midwest. Having celiac disease herself, Deaver started her expo in 2010. "We had a hundred vendors [in 2011]. Utah's a big, big market."
"People came from Idaho, Wyoming, St. George, Arizona, all over," said Mike Deaver, Debbie's brother and expo public relations coordinator.
Gluten-free consumers "will seek out and they will be loyal to restaurants that are gluten-free, or at least have gluten-free options on the menu. It's really that ability with people who are caretakers or gluten-intolerant to grow an affinity and brand logo to the gluten-free products, and it's proved highly successful."
The Deavers agree that the gluten-free market is particularly popular in Utah, with its larger-than-average households.
"Once one person in the household goes gluten-free, moms will shop and bake for everybody in the house [that way], just to save time," Debbie Deaver said.
"There's a big sense of cross-contamination," her brother added. "If you even cook in pots or pans that have gluten in it and if it had residual gluten and you cooked a gluten-free meal ... that person could still get sick. Families realize, 'Let's just cook gluten-free, and then we don't have to worry about an extra set of dishes and cross-contamination.' "
The gluten-free market hasn't gone unnoticed by large food distributors. General Mills was a vendor at the Gluten-Free Expo last year.
Allison Regan, owner of Sweet Cake Bake Shop, said the demand for gluten-free is nationwide. Her Kaysville bakery ships a gluten-free flour blend, cakes and cookies as far as Alaska, with more customers from Texas than Utah registered on her website.
"It's been really surprising to me how much demand there is outside of Utah," Regan said.
She plans to add to her restaurant and bakery within the next year by opening a store in downtown Salt Lake. She also hopes to expand outside the state.
The celiac community networks a great deal, and is very tight-knit and loyal. Regan recounted a story about a New Hampshire mother and daughter who drove to her Kaysville shop during a layover at Salt Lake City International Airport.
The mother said, "We are exiting the airplane right now, please stay open!" Regan, who has celiac disease, kept the bakery open.
"We have so much support and just a fantastic, wonderful, loving supportive customer base," Regan said.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one out of 133 people in the United States has the disorder.
"Gluten is a protein that is present in wheat, rye and barley. When people have celiac disease, the body recognizes gluten as an allergen," said Uma Karnam, a Salt Lake City gastroenterologist. "You can have problems, from memory issues to seizures to cardiac, kidney and liver problems, so it is not just a disease or event of the gastrointestinal tract."
When untreated, celiac disease can even result in death.
"In an ideal world, the amount of gluten that a person with celiac can be exposed to should be as close to zero as possible," Karnam said.
One of the issues facing the gluten-free market is the lack of established Food and Drug Administration regulations, said Regan.
"When something is labeled as gluten-free, how do you know that wasn't cross-contaminated?" Regan said. "That's been one of the biggest issues and the biggest risks when eating out. It's a scary thing because it is people's health, and it's not something to be taken lightly."
The FDA is set to determine the U.S. standard for gluten-free certification later this year.
Lawson, of New Grains Gluten-Free Bakery, says the international standard is 20 parts per million of gluten to be considered gluten-free – which is still enough to make some people sick.
If that standard were adopted, it "could affect the importing of gluten-free stuff from all over the world by a factor of hundreds of millions of dollars a year," Lawson said.
Kate Bennion is a senior at Brigham Young University from Hyde Park who is majoring in communications.
What is celiac disease?
It is a digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is primarily found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye. People with the disease who eat foods containing gluten experience an immune reaction in their small intestines, causing damage to the inner surface of the small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients.
Source: Mayo Clinic Editor's note This story was produced as part of a partnership between The Tribune and Brigham Young University. Students, who receive classroom credit for their work, write the stories under supervision of professors. The stories are submitted to the paper, where they are edited for publication.