published Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Allergic reaction: Food sensitivities drive commerce, dietary changes

Customer Sharon Hogan discusses new items she would like to see carried at Mimi’s Low Carb Market with co-owner Liz Crawford. The Hixson grocery store, which specializes in low-carb and gluten-free foods, often stocks special items on request from customers.
Customer Sharon Hogan discusses new items she would like to see carried at Mimi’s Low Carb Market with co-owner Liz Crawford. The Hixson grocery store, which specializes in low-carb and gluten-free foods, often stocks special items on request from customers.
Photo by Jay Bailey /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The inability to find the proverbial needle in the haystack drove Jeff Crawford into marketing the needles himself.

In his case, the needles are diabetic foods -- low-carb, low-sugar and gluten-free products, specifically, that people like his mother, newly diagnosed with diabetes, can eat.

Crawford's business, Mimi's Low Carb Market -- named after his mother, Louise -- opened in November in Hixson. While saying he "stays away from trying to diagnose" at Mimi's Low Carb Market, Crawford at least wants to offer a wide variety of low-carb foods and those free of gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye.

"That's one of the main reasons for starting the store," he says. "We've done the research, made sure the products are good. The industry has come a long ways in a short period of time."

Food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise, according to those who deal with them on a daily basis.

"The occurrence of allergic disease is skyrocketing," says Indi Maharaj, dietitian at the lifestyle center at Erlanger hospital, "and estimates are that as many as one in five Americans have an allergic condition."

The need for low-carb foods is also increasing, she says.

"The simple facts are," Maharaj says, "that Americans eat way too [many] processed, refined carbohydrates and need to drastically cut back their consumption."

NEW WORLD

Ed Jones, who opened Chattanooga's Nutrition World in 1979, says the food sensitivity stories he's been hearing for the last 10 years are different than anything he heard in the late 1970s, 1980s or 1990s.

"There are incredible, unusual things you can't put finger on," he says. "They're creating poor health, people are feeling lousy and life is not optimal. People are frustrated, and the traditional medical model is not [helping]."

Jones says gluten-free and low-carb selections have come a long way in the last three or four years.

"There's been a vast increase in taste and availability," he says. "There's hardly anything you [can't] find gluten-free. But 50 percent of it, I wouldn't eat" and don't carry it. "There's still room for improvement."

Crawford says there is a such a demand for gluten-free and low-carb food, he will open a deli at Mimi's at the end of the month. The deli will offer traditional and gluten-free sandwiches, he says, and separate prep areas to prevent contamination.

Like Crawford, Karen K. Wilson's new business came from a personal experience. After developing a severe gluten sensitivity in 2006, she began perfecting recipes for gluten-free breads, cakes, cookies, muffins and desserts through trial and error. Earlier this month, she opened Crave Cafe & Bakery in Warehouse Row.

"I was always aware there was a pretty decent-sized population who needed gluten-free food," she says. "It's nice to have that validated [by her customer base] and to know that many [people] are excited about a gluten-free bakery and restaurant."

Jones lays the blame for the burgeoning gluten problem to the now-genetically modified and hybrid wheat, to the general overconsumption of wheat-based foods and to the body's inability to digest such foods when it was set up to eat mostly meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

"We didn't use to live off bread," he says. "We have an addiction to it now. We like it. It's like overconsuming anything. Even if it's healthy [food], the body starts reacting to it."

GETTING EDUCATED

Experts say people should take the time to educate themselves on celiac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten insensitivity.

With celiac disease, says Dr. Richard Krause of ClinSearch, patients cannot eat any gluten. Their small bowel has been damaged, resulting in poor absorption of food and symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, irritability, depression, weight-loss, fatigue and vitamin deficiencies, he says.

In 2011, Bluff View Art District hired a chef who specialized in gluten-free cooking at Rembrandt's Coffee House, using almond flour in its items. For an item to be certified as gluten-free, it must contain less than 10 parts per million of gluten so, to keep from hurting anyone with a severe allergy, Bluff View uses the term "gluten-safe" to describe its offerings.

Bluff View also has a personal connection to gluten allergies because Director of Operations Michael Vasta suffers from celiac disease.

Patients who are gluten intolerant, according to Maharaj, probably should move to a gluten-free diet. But, she says, their doctor should determine that based on the severity of the allergy.

Jones says people who experience a gluten insensitivity, though, don't need to immediately drop gluten from their diet because a gluten-free diet is difficult to maintain.

"I have always tried to teach people to use a certain level of common sense," he says. "You're eating too much of it. Cut the grains in half. You're going to be better off. [The grains are] not nutritional to begin with. Your allergies will decrease, and your energy will increase."

Wilson says she knows of people who found benefits from lowering their intake of gluten.

"Weekend athletes find it helps them in training," she says. "They hear about the possibility, give it a try and find they feel better."

However, Maharaj says if people are on a gluten-free diet, they may miss out on certain vitamins and nutrients. With that in mind, she says, they should monitor their levels of iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate.

Beyond gluten, peanut and lactose allergies, even foods such as orange juice, red meat and soy are beginning to cause problems, according to Jones.

"The immune system is overwhelmed from too many areas," he says. "Something that used to be friend is now a foe. But whether it's the processing or the body, we don't know."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.


Chocolate Toffee Cracker Bark

3/4 package Crunchmaster Original Multi-Seed Crackers

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

A few pinches of sea salt

1 cup chocolate chips

1/4 cup chopped pecans

1/4 cup raisins

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of the sheet with crackers, filling about 2/3 of the sheet. In a saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar. Cook until the mixture boils and thickens. Remove from heat, add the salt and vanilla and pour over crackers. Spread in a thin layer to cover. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with chocolate chips. Let stand 5 minutes, then spread with a spatula. Sprinkle with pecans and raisins; push into the chocolate lightly with spatula. Place pan in refrigerator to cool completely. Break into pieces and keep in the fridge.

— Anna Luke of the blog Gluten Free? Gimme Three


Lemony Quinoa

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 cup quinoa

2 cups water

Sea salt to taste

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 stalks celery, chopped

1/4 red onion, chopped

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped

Toast the pine nuts briefly in a dry skillet over medium heat. This will take about 5 minutes, and stir constantly as they will burn easily. Set aside to cool.

In a saucepan, combine the quinoa, water and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook until quinoa is tender and water has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Cool slightly, then fluff with a fork. Transfer the quinoa to a serving bowl and stir in the pine nuts, lemon juice, celery, onion, cayenne pepper, cumin and parsley. Adjust salt and pepper if needed before serving.

— Allrecipes.com

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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