Professionals address severity of health concerns about gluten as numbers of people with celiac disease spike

Gluten-free pastaFrom juice cleanses to single-food diets, there have been plenty of suggestions regarding how people can eat healthier or lose weight. Gluten-free eating has been all the rage as of late, but there are also health-related concerns as to why people are avoiding gluten.

Celiac disease is a medical condition in which the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged by a substance called gluten. This results in the inability of the body to absorb nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals — all of which are necessary for good health.

 Due to the popularity of specialized diets, Jim Calverley, vice president of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association, says the medical community has become more aware about testing for celiac disease. Calverley says the number of people in Canada diagnosed with celiac disease has spiked from one in 200, to around one in 133.

From first-hand experience, Calverley, says people could suffer from severe health problems if their celiac disease goes undiagnosed.

"I was slowly starving my organs," says Calverley. "I was very fortunate that I had a doctor who rather than just giving me iron pills, thought he should check for celiac, and of course he found it."

Over a decade ago, having celiac disease would have been considered a nightmare, Calverley says. He was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, and says since then the availability of gluten-free products has exploded.

"Not only are we seeing a multitude of products on the shelf, but also a lot of restaurants are providing gluten-free options," he adds.

Gluten Free PastaGluten is such a commonly used ingredient and greatly influences how people affected by celiac disease eat.

Photo by: Allison Badger

Three and a half years ago, Care Bakery in Calgary began its quest to serve gluten-free bread. Owner Kerry Bennett is gluten intolerant, which she says provided her the inspiration to create a gluten-free environment.

"We find that almost 20 per cent of the people in restaurants are eating gluten-free right now, and for various reasons," Bennett says.

She explains how some people eat gluten-free food due to medical reasons, while others just like different options. Bennett also acknowledges some people eat gluten-free because it is part of a trend.

The Calgary Food Bank has also paid attention to changing diets by offering a celiac hamper. According to its 2012 annual report, there was a 25 per cent increase in the use of these hampers since 2011.

Gluten1Pasta, a food people with celiac disease can now enjoy at NOtaBLE thanks to Labossiere.

Photo by: Allison Badger
Both Bennett and the Canadian Celiac Association have been involved with either donations or the assembly of the celiac hamper, and say this service is an important aspect of the Calgary Food Bank.

"It's really important," says Bennett. "Everybody needs to eat, intolerances need to be taken care of, and we're taking care of other people in society.".

Michael Noble's restaurant NOtaBLE has taken gluten-free to a new level with the help of executive chef Justin Labossiere. A year ago, Labossiere and Noble reviewed the number of patrons requesting gluten-free items, and noticing an increase, created a menu that is 95 per cent gluten-free.

Labossiere has gone a step further and started his own company, More Gluten Free Pasta. He makes fresh gluten-free pasta that's now served at the restaurant, and also sells to other locations around Calgary.

"For a celiac to come in, and for them to walk away with an experience anything less than what you're out there to provide, it's not acceptable," Labossiere says.

Although not a celiac himself, Labossiere explains that through his business venture he has become educated about celiac disease, and treats it very seriously in the kitchen.

NOtaBLE buys bread from Care Bakery, and Labossiere says the restaurant has a separate toaster for Bennett's gluten-free bread in order to prevent cross contamination.

"It's the way of the future, it's not a trend. It's a legitimate health concern and a disease," Labossiere says. "It's also a diet now. You can't ignore it."

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