Get the Gluten Out!

More local restaurants are going gluten-free

Little "GF" logos are showing up on local restaurant menus– and they don't mean food for your girlfriend.

That's because more and more local restaurants are retooling their menus is to accommodate those with gluten and wheat intolerances, which vary. While all come with bummer side effects, celiac disease is most life-threatening out of the group.

"The problem with celiac disease is if you continue to ingest the wheat, you can be at an increased risk for certain kinds of cancers in the stomach lining and the G.I. tract," said KarynGell, a doctor at Grand Rapids Allergy, which specializes in asthma and allergy care.

That's not all. In addition to cancer risks, people with celiac disease suffer from some of the most unglamorous side effects possible: diarrhea, bloating, gas, constipation, depression, fatigue and that dreaded hangover feeling, says one person who went gluten-free a year and a half ago. More than ever, businesses in the food industry recognize the pain and discomfort those with intolerances face and adjust menus accordingly.

"We're very respectful of other people's allergies," said Ted Watson, general manager at Brick Road Pizza in Grand Rapids, which offers nearly every menu item in a gluten-free option. "They come here trusting that we're not going to make people sick."

Not everyone who chooses to go gluten free has celiac disease, however. Many have gluten intolerances, which are not as serious as celiac, but still result in those nasty side effects.

"If somebody has celiac disease or is really allergic, those people call days in advance," said Josef Huber, corporate executive chef at Amway Hotel Corporation."They take a stand and they're worried about it."

Within the past two years, the diet has grown not only locally, but on national levels. Just last year, the gluten-free diet came in at No. 2 on Time magazine's top 10 list of food trends. That same year, Miley Cyrus endorsed the diet on Twitter and in 2010, after going on the diet, tennis star Novak Djokovic won five Grand Slam titles. Such celebrity endorsements lead to more interest in the diet and more tweaks to recipes and menu items. Now it's even common to see a gluten-free aisle at grocery stores.

"It's getting better and better," said Christina Klunder-Meuser, co-owner of Grand Central Market in Grand Rapids."When we were looking into gluten-free options two years ago, the products were not that awesome."

GCM stocks its shelves with gluten-free products such as beer, pasta and snacks, and also uses gluten-free meats from Dietz &Watson and breads from Gordon Foods, a large supplier to area businesses.

"There has been incremental interest in gluten-free products for the past six years and more so in the past two years as consumers have become more aware of gluten," said Andy Maier, spokesperson for Gordon Food Service.

And yes, even though gluten is found in wheat, the protein can sneak into a lot of meat items – mostly processed products.

"Processed meats have to be shelf-stable, so gluten is included as a stabilizing agent," said Cheryl Powell, co-owner of GCM, who says Dietz & Watson's meats are all natural, which make them gluten-free.

Since gluten can hide in certain foods such as meat, soy and teriyaki sauces and hard candies, reading labels and talking to restaurants about their menus is important, Doctor Gell says.

"That's a problem with eating out – you don't have a label to read. And our motto here is every label must be read before that food goes in your mouth," Gell said."If it doesn't have a label, then you're taking a chance."

Luckily for those with gluten intolerance, there are local businesses that educate their staff on customer dietary needs.

"We provide explanations and options for our service and kitchen staffs," said Matthew Burian, president and partner at The Millennium Restaurant Group in Kalamazoo. "Another key point in our education is that 'gluten-free' and 'celiac' [are] not the same thing."

Martell's, one of Millennium's 10 restaurants and catering businesses, went as far as to create a separate gluten-free menu separate from its lunch, dinner or beverage menus.

"Rather than strictly treating an ailment, diners now seem to be selecting gluten free as a means to greater fitness and health," Burian said.

Aaron Smith, who is executive chef at Millennium's Epic Bistro, learned about the health benefits from his dietician sister-in-law, who is on the gluten-free diet, along with the rest of her family. He says the diet not only boosts energy, but people that go gluten-free are more aware of what they're putting in their bodies.

At Amway, Huber makes sure to have gluten-free options ready for diners, but says the recent rise in dietary needs has made catering for large-scale banquets a little more difficult.

"Over the last 15 or 20 years, when I did banquets, we maybe had one out of 100 requests, now we have 10-15 percent special meals."

But that's only until it's time for dessert.

"A lot of people out there are 'I'm gluten-free until it comes to dessert.' People can eat cake all day long," Huber said."You know how many gluten-free cakes I make? Zero."