Gluten-free expert Carol Fenster reflects on how far the gluten-free lifestyle has come. Plus, enter to win a copy of her newly re-released classic, Gluten-Free 101!
Carol Fenster, PhD, has been on the forefront of the gluten-free conversation for longer than most. Gluten free herself since 1988, she’s shared her hard-won wisdom and tasty recipes in numerous books, including a re-release of Gluten-Free 101 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), due out this month. This book is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to learn how to cook and eat gluten free because Carol's an expert at cheerfully demystifying ingredients and hand-holding newbies and veterans alike. Trust me, her gluten-free recipes will become some of your go-to favorites in no time.
As part of a recent research project for NEXT Trend, I caught up with Carol to chat about the evolution of the gluten-free world. Here’s what she had to say.
When did you start to see the gluten-free issue really take off?
Between 2003 and 2005; that’s when I started finding it on menus and in new products. Around that time the FDA was debating the new food-allergen labeling that we now take for granted [the Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act, FALCPA]; that law passed in 2004 [mandating declaration of the top 8 food allergens, namely wheat, milk, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts, on food labels]. As the Internet grew—we didn’t have Facebook and all the things we have now, but we had email—I think special interest groups got involved in the discussion and there was more media buzz about gluten free. [After FALCPA] passed, gluten got national attention because manufacturers started to say, “OK, now there’s something I can work with in terms of labeling and what I can and can’t do.” And more companies began considering jumping into the industry.
FALCPA went into full effect in 2006; that’s when things really started to change, and restaurants started to take an interest. Now with the recent FDA declaration [that formally defines gluten-free as 20ppm or less], that’s going to really help too.
What’s your own gluten-free history?
In 1988, I was having sinus issues, and I finally found myself in the office of a doctor who knew what he was doing. I don’t have celiac disease, but I’m non-celiac gluten sensitive (we can thank Dr. [Alessio] Fasano for giving a name to it since there’s no test for it).
And although I was initially delighted [to have a diagnosis], I soon realized there was nothing I could eat. It was very, very hard. Basically the only thing on the market was Ener-G; they got in the business of manufacturing products for people with kidney problems, so they made foods that were low protein, with white rice flour, tapioca, and potato starch—not wheat, which has too much protein—so by accident they found themselves in the gluten-free market. There really weren’t specifically gluten-free foods, or if there were they were hard to track down … and they were really, really bad.
At that time, I didn’t know a single soul who was also avoiding gluten. It took a full five years to meet any people that had the same condition I did. When I first started writing my books, I took [a draft] to a well-known allergist in Denver, and he said, “I think you’re doing a labor of love; it’s not going to go anywhere because there’s not enough people who need this.” Now I laugh because he was only thinking about wheat-allergic people; and it’s really the intolerance to gluten, not just wheat, that’s much more common. He was operating from his narrow perspective and he was correct from what he saw, but had no clue about what was happening with gluten.
What’s the future for gluten-free foods?
More people are getting diagnosed and the rate of celiac is actually increasing. Also, the market will grow because no parent wants to create special meals; as long as the food looks and tastes good, it’s likely the whole family will eat gluten-free food, rather than fixing meals for the one or two people with celiac. For example, some gluten-free pasta is now so good that I’m serving it for guests.
There are now lots of people buying gluten-free foods that don’t necessarily need them; they’re not doing it because it’s fashionable but because someone in their family is gluten free, and now [the non-gluten-free eaters] are also willing to eat it because it tastes good.
Also restaurants are realizing that if they are willing to accommodate a gluten-free or allergen-free person, that person typically eats in a group of three; so the restaurant will get two additional diners—and that means more profit.
What overall lessons can manufacturers and retailers glean from the gluten-free market evolution over the past ten-plus years?
What comes to mind is how important it is to discern a fad from a real, live medical need. I think for so long and still to a certain extent, gluten-free is regarded as a trend, and for those of us who are in it because we have to be—our diets are directed by our medical condition, not to be fashionable—it’s hard when we realize that a manufacturer doesn’t take it seriously. If they can understand their market and realize it’s not a fad or trend, it’s a real live medical condition, that our food is actually our medicine, then there is a lot of potential there.
The other takeaway is to always remember that we need good, healthy food, not gluten-free junk food. Even though it’s safe doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for us, and some of us are disheartened when we see gluten-free cookies or ultrasweet candies; we need good food that keeps us healthy, not just a gluten-free substitute.
Follow the rest of Carol's blog tour!
Jan. 22: Amy Green at http://simplysugarandglutenfree.com/
Jan. 28: Elisa Bosley at http://deliciousliving.com/blogger/elisa-bosley
Jan. 30: Ellen Allard at http://www.glutenfreediva.com/blog/
Feb. 4: Sueson Vess at http://www.specialeats.com/
March 3: Rachel Begun, RD, at http://rachelbegun.com/blog
And, starting January 26, listen to Carol being interviewed by Jeanne Murdock on Celiac Radio.