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To Wheat or Not to Wheat

This story was published via The Medill News Service on June 2, 2008. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

Americans are gluttons for gluten. Found naturally in wheat, barley and rye, we use the grain protein in everything from pet food to toothpaste to soy sauce. Even communion wafers.

And 1 percent of the population can’t eat it.

According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, more than 3 million Americans suffer from Celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder that results in gluten intolerance. The only treatment is life-long avoidance of wheat, barley or any substances that contain it.

Margot Chapman is co-owner of Lincoln Park’s Swirlz Cupcakes, a subsidiary of Four Unlikely Friends LLC. She was diagnosed with Celiac disease five years ago and insisted that gluten-free cupcakes be on the Swirlz menu every day.

Chapman also owns a marketing company and has developed products for Fortune 500 companies, including Kellog Co. and Pepsico Inc.’s Quaker Oats and Frito-Lay.

“I’ve done a lot of work in grains,” she said. “I’m called the ‘Queen of Grains.’ I’ve developed grain products for cereal and bread and cookies and cake.” She says she was shocked when she was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant.

Swirlz’s gluten-free goodies cost the same as the traditional options – $3 per cupcake – and Chapman said they’ve been a success because the bakery uses a special blend of flours to create a taste and texture similar to a normal cupcake.

“Wheat, which is what you would normally bake with, has a lot of elasticity, which makes bread and cookies taste yummy. So when you take it out of a product, and you try to create something that tastes yummy and delicious, it’s really a challenge,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of taking something out, it’s what do you put in to create the taste and texture that doesn’t taste fringe and odd and strange.”

The Nielson Co. reports that revenues from items labeled gluten-free have soared almost 20 percent in the past year to $1.7 billion from $1.4 billion in May 2007. Sales have increased 74 percent compared with 2004. Some items, like gluten-free gum and pet food, only entered the market in 2008.

The first mainstream food supplier to embrace gluten-free products was General Mills Inc. Last month, the world’s sixth-largest food company announced that its Rice Chex breakfast cereal is now gluten-free.

Conventional grocery stores are stocking more gluten-free products, though truly tasty options can be elusive. Many Celiac sufferers cited Whole Foods Market IP LP and Trader Joe’s Co. as putting more options on their plates, but gluten-free food continues to be more expensive.

“It takes a bit of doing to learn what’s out there, and then it takes awhile to sample all the different kinds, but there’s much more today than there was 20 years ago,” said Claudia Franz, president of the Celiac Sprue Association of Greater Chicago.

So with grain prices still rising, does it make fiscal sense to adopt a gluten-free diet?

Maybe. As grain becomes more expensive, so will its dependent products. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that the April 2008 average price of U.S. wheat was $371 per metric ton, double the $180 per metric ton average wheat price in April 2007.

Gluten is an element in thousands of frequently used food products, so paring it from your diet could help cut costs.

And yet, gluten-free items remain more costly than wheat products and show little sign of dropping in price, despite growing interest and increasing need.

For example, the number of people eating gluten-free diets may be larger than the number of Celiac sufferers. Because of the intensity of the intolerance, separate ovens, toasters and other appliances can be needed to reduce contamination. So, many families of sufferers lead gluten-less lives as well.

Chapman said the bakery has been hit hard by rising egg and butter prices, but the cost of baking with wheat and their special blend of gluten-free flours has remained about the same.

“They’re probably comparable given the price of wheat and given the price of buying a number of ingredients to blend them into one thing,” she said.
Franz expressed hope and doubt that the price of gluten-free food will drop dramatically.

“As more and more people here are diagnosed [with Celiac], I think the volume of purchases will go up, and then I would hope food prices would come down. You can go as high as $8 for a loaf of gluten-free bread, depending on what you buy,” Franz said. “I don’t see it coming down in the near future, but I hope it does before I die.”

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