Twelve years ago, when Linda Kramer and John Shaw opened The Gluten Free Trading Co., 3116 S. Chase Ave., it was believed that one in 4,000-6,000 people had Celiac Disease, a condition caused by eating gluten that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing important parts of food. Today, it is believed that one in 120 people are gluten sensitive.
Gluten, from the Latin word for “glue,” is a protein composite that makes dough keep it’s shape and have a chewy texture. It is found in foods processed from wheat, rye and barley. Some of the main items to avoid if gluten-intolerant are crackers, cakes, cookies, cereals (hot and cold), pastas, tortillas and many more. Without educating oneself and reading a lot of labels, it is difficult to stay away from.
Because of this, Kramer and Shaw, who both have Celiac Disease, wanted to provide a grocery store where gluten-sensitive shoppers could have a large selection of safe food items. The Bay View-based grocery features mostly dry goods – from pastas to crackers to cake mixes – and frozen foods, with a beer selection featuring every gluten-free beer that is licensed for sale in Wisconsin, including Lakefront’s New Grist, Redbridge from Anheuser-Busch and Bard’s Tale.
“When we opened, there wasn’t anywhere gluten-free to shop. Our big thing was we wanted to offer selection. We wanted to make grocery shopping normal again for people,” says Kramer.
The Gluten-Free Trading Company also sells dairy-free cheese. Dairy is usually OK to consume for those with Celiac Disease but many people with CD are also lactose intolerant and some of Kramer’s customers are doing a combination gluten-free and casein-free diet for kids with autism.
There are about 250 possible symptoms and conditions associated with Celiac Disease. Many people who have it experience abdominal pain, intermittent diarrhea and / or bloating. There is a test available that determines whether a person has the condition, but they must be eating gluten at the time. Once gluten is eliminated, a person would show up negative for CD.
The common belief that gluten-free bread tastes like cardboard is only partially true. Kramer says some brands are definitely better than others. She recommends Udi’s – although the common complaint is their bread slices are very small – and Kinnickinnic, which is a product from Canada not the South Side of Milwaukee, despite the name. The other key to tasty gluten-free bread is to toast or warm it in the microwave first.
“Wheat does wonderful things in bead,” admits Kramer. “Gluten-free bread is definitely a science.”
For the gluten-intolerant, eating gluten-free food alone might not alleviate all of a Celiac’s symptoms. Kramer says a common mistake people make is sharing a toaster with roommates or family members who eat regular bread because even a few bread crumbs can upset a Celiac’s system. Sharing food items like mayonnaise or peanut butter can be problematic, too, because the knife may have a few bread bits on it that accidentally get mixed into the jar.
A lot of seasonings, including bouillon, have gluten in them, so many soups and sauces might not be gluten-free. This gets tricky because most gluten-avoiders know that rice is a safe food, but the seasoning packets in boxed rice dishes are not. And diners need to be careful in Chinese restaurants because most soy sauce has gluten in it and many of the vegetable or meat toppings could be swimming in a gluten-containing sauce.
If going out to eat, it’s a good idea to get a restaurant card that lists items, often in multiple languages, that need to be avoided. Kramer suggests going to a new restaurant during a mellow time so the server or chefs have time to discuss ingredients.
A few of Kramer’s favorite Milwaukee restaurants that have gluten-free items are Beans Barley, Cafe Centro, VIA Downer, Stack’d Burger Bar, Transfer Pizzeria and Cafe (they have Gluten-Free Mondays) and sushi from Japanese restaurants. If dining in a Mexican restaurant, Kramer says a rice and bean mixture inside corn tacos or tortillas should be safe, although there is a chance gluten-containing seasoning cubes were used in the beans or rice.
Kramer also reminds that any adhesives that need to be licked – this used to be more of a problem before stamps were self-adhesive – could contain gluten. And Catholic mass hosts have gluten in them, too.
The gluten-free diet has been embraced by people without Celiac Disease for other health and beauty reasons. Hollywood celebs like Victoria Beckham, Chelsea Clinton, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, Jenny McCarthy and Gwyneth Paltrow made the diet trendy.
Gluten-free diets often lack B vitamins and fiber, so it’s important those following the diet get these nutrients through other sources.
When beginning a gluten-free diet, Kramer recommends people don’t approach it by thinking about all the items they can’t eat. It’s important to say, instead, “What am I going to eat?” Many favorite foods that contain gluten can be prepared in a slightly new way and still be enjoyed.
“Think about what you did eat and work from there,” she says.