By LAUREN KEATING
New York City has seen a rise in gluten-free restaurants and bakeries, along with wider selections in supermarkets.
Shopkeepers say that eating gluten-free is not just the city’s latest lifestyle trend: New Yorkers are becoming more aware of gluten intolerance, which can stem from celiac disease or gluten allergies.
“People here are serious,” said Lynn Shuter, owner of G-Free NYC, a store that opened on the Upper West Side in April, 2011 to specialize in gluten-free foods. “This is a perfect resource. People don’t come here because it’s a trend. They come here because they want to feel better.”
Shuter was diagnosed with celiac disease 20 years ago, when she was in college. “People find it is hard at first, but they will learn because they get sick,” she said of cutting gluten from her own diet.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which damage to the lining of the small intestine results from a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. Signs of the disease include problems such as bloating, gas, and pain, anemia, weight loss and loss of bone density, but symptoms vary in each patient.
Celiac disease can develop at any point in life and is most common in Caucasians and women. An estimated 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease.
“Celiac is just one small piece of a whole wide spectrum of people who have gluten sensitivity,” said Dr. Anthony Salzarulo, a clinical nutritionist who practices in New York and specializes in homeopathy and detoxification.
Testing for reactivity to gluten is complicated because usually only one component of the protein is tested. Consequentially, a patient can have an allergy or intolerance and still not be diagnosed with celiac.
In 2011, a panel of experts agreed on the medical term non-celiac gluten sensitivity for those suffering from gluten intolerance. It is inconclusive how many people have this sensitivity, how to accurately identify it, and what the long-term effects are.
While the prices for gluten-free products are more expensive—a loaf of gluten-free bread costs around $9—eating free from stomach pain is priceless. According to a report from the market researcher Packaged Facts, gluten-free food has rapidly grown into a $4.2 billion market and is predicted to expand to $6.6 billion by 2017.
Shuter said there were limited options available to her back when she was diagnosed. She didn’t have a sandwich until the brand Udi’s came out with bread 10 years ago. She believes there are more gluten-free options in New York because there is more awareness. “We [stores] couldn’t survive if it was just people with celiac because it is such a niche, but there are so many people now that are gluten intolerant,” she said.
Shuter aims to provide New York City the best in gluten-free with her specialty store. “Our mission is to vet all the products and just find the best gluten-free products available,” she said. “That means we source them, we taste them, so we make sure they are safe and hopefully nutritious too.”
Anna Tovstashy and her daughter Nicolette both suffer from gluten allergies. They come from New Jersey to shop at G-Free NYC. Nicolette, 14, was diagnosed with a gluten allergy two years ago and her mother has been gluten-free for three years. “When I stayed away from gluten I lost weight and I feel better. I have more energy,” Tovstashy said, purchasing gluten-free dumplings and pizza.
New York City has been booming with more options for those suffering from gluten intolerance. Supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Fairway and Trader Joe’s offer a wide variety of gluten-free products. There are also six gluten-free bakeries in the city.
Body & Soul vegan bakery bakes its products in Bushwick and sells the goods at the Union Square Market. Scott Crospy, who has been with the company for 15 years, said there is a rising market for gluten-free products in New York. “We just started doing gluten-free about two years ago. Now we are doing gluten-free, it’s been a craze, so we’re jumping on it,” he said.
Four kinds of gluten-free sweet muffins are among the most popular products Crospy sells at the market every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “People kept asking for it, so we started baking, that’s how it started for us,” he said. “Now we are making more and more and will probably still make more because it’s been growing.”
Queens resident Erin Smith said she discovered that “just because you can’t have gluten doesn’t mean you have to stop eating.”
Smith has been following a gluten-free diet for as long as she can remember. She was diagnosed with celiac disease when she was just 2-years-old after being very sick as an infant. “No one could figure it out,” she said. She was taken to a pediatric gastrologist and after a weeklong hospital visit filled with testing, she was finally diagnosed with “failure to thrive” in 1981.
Now 35, Smith can’t tolerate any gluten. “Growing up, there wasn’t as many products as there are on the market today, especially in the past five years,” she said. There were no health specialty stores. Her parents had to mail order Seattle-based Energy Food. Her diet consisted of gluten-free rice, pasta, and the staple of those with celiac disease, corn. Within six weeks of being on a gluten-free diet she became healthy, she said.
“Just like fat-free diets were trendy a few years ago, gluten-free diets are now the new trend,” Smith said. “But there is much bigger awareness than ever before.”
Smith found an outlet to help those with gluten intolerance feel better mentally by serving as one of the organizers of the group Gluten-Free in New York City on MeetUp.com. The group has grown to include 17,000 members. “The group is social and we have a very active message board. This is not a group to say ‘Woe is me.’ We want to embrace life,” she said. “Life is not over when you are diagnosed.”
New York life can be stressful and eating on the go can often lead to poor food choices. Salzarulo said people eat foods that are filled with colors and additives and are genetically modified. He takes his patients off gluten and sometimes completely off grains, which are bleached and processed.
“How could you not have sensitivity to that?” he said. “The body gets sensitive when things go in there that are very inflammatory to the system.” He added: “When you fool with Mother Nature, you pay a big price.”
Now, he said, his patients have many more choices to look forward to: “The demand has created a much bigger supply and now restaurants and shopping centers are at a disadvantage if they don’t carry gluten-free options.”
Video by Lauren Keating