You see the labels on so many more foods today. Gluten-free Rice Krispies, gluten-free breads, pastas and even dog food. Food manufacturers are jumping into the gluten-free market with great zeal. But today on Food Matters, I presented the story of a bakery that is battling the trend.
When I bumped into the owner of True Grain Bread in Cowichan Bay a week ago we started chatting about the whole gluten free thing. After we parted I thought back on how long the bakery has been in business and what the owners have had to face as a bakery over the past ten years. Current owner Bruce Stewart, who took over in 2007, told me he bought in just as the low carb Atkins Diet trend was starting to fade; then he faced a huge jump in the price of organic grains as he was trying to hold the line on prices; now he’s having to deal with this growing swing of people demanding more gluten-free foods in their diet. Bruce told me it certainly was cause for concern. As the company looked at soft numbers that they felt were being caused by the gluten-free trend, they had a decision to make: Should True Grain start making gluten-free breads? Which would mean either creating an entirely new facility, or completely scrubbing down the bakery between each shift of baking gluten, then gluten-free loaves. In the end they decided to stick with the original concept of the bakery, using organic, heritage and ancient grains. Noting that most gluten-free products are made without grains of any sort, Bruce felt that would be an ironic move considering the name of the bakery is True Grain.
So the alternative is to help educate people about gluten, make them understand it is not ‘bad’. Only one percent of our population is actually celiac. These are people who get really bad physical reactions when they eat gluten. Bruce has done some research (including this recent article in Maclean’s magazine, and this one from CBC News) and figures there may be another 20 percent of our population in Canada that has some sort of problem with what he calls modern wheat, and this is what the popular book Wheat Belly deals with; that the genetic makeup of our modern strains of wheat have changed drastically from what our ancestors used to eat, and our digestive systems have a problem dealing with it. But many people have fewer problems with the so-called heritage or ancient grains, such as emmer. Bruce says emmer is one of the first grains ever cultivated by mankind, it was found in the remains of some humans that dated back to 7000 BC. Emmer is the wheat referred to as ‘the staff of life’ in the Bible, and the wheat that predominantly turned humans from hunter-gatherers into an agricultural society. Genetically speaking, it is a simpler grain than today’s wheat, Bruce says, it has only 28 chromosomes, whereas today’s modern wheat has 48 chromosomes.
But CFIA regulations mean that Bruce still has to include emmer as ‘wheat’ on his packaging, and it does contain gluten, although seemingly not the type that upsets the intestinal fortitude of so many modern wheat-eaters.
So this is where the communication problem comes in. Bruce and his staff, and for that matter, other artisan bakers in this region, need to tell people there is a difference, and it’s not that easy to do. Bruce says they are lucky at True Grain because they have a loyal base of customers who understand what they’re trying to do, but they have lost some people and need new clientele. ”When someone new comes in and it’s busy and they ask if we have gluten-free bread and they want a yes or no answer, the answer is ‘no’ and then they’re out the door. But if we’ve got time we can talk to them and answer some questions, and I’ve made up a pamphlet (click here for a link to the pdf version) that explains what we’re trying to do here and how our ancient grains breads may be more tolerated by people who have a non-celiac gluten problem. In the past 6 months we’ve given out three thousand pamphlets!”
The biggest gratification Bruce gets is when someone will take a loaf of bread home to try, and then come back into the store to give him a hug and tell him how much their life has changed because they’ve discovered they can eat his products with no problems to their digestive systems.
On my radio show yesterday I brought in what I think is a delicious coffee cake I made by milling some whole emmer in my Thermomix using some unset jars of marmalade I had kicking around for the sweetener. Here’s the original recipe. Bruce also gave me some of True Grain’s emmer sesame bread and kamut pumpkin seed bread, which the folks at the radio station were enthusiastically munching on.
Nobody seemed too excited about the loaf of Udi’s gluten-free bread I brought in. Made primarily with imported tapioca starch and brown rice flour, it was very light and white and just not appetizing in general. And as Bruce points out from a food security angle, why buy that kind of loaf unless you have to, when you can have a loaf made with BC-grown grain, milled right in the bakery for freshness?
Bruce thinks this gluten-free demand is just a trend, facing the same fate as oat bran, Dr. Atkins and so on, but at the same time he does believe there is a genuine problem for a lot of people out there with the kind of wheat and grains they’re eating today. So his bakery will always remain committed to the types of products they sell now.