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In Motion: Gluten-Free Goes Mainstream

Does cutting gluten out of breads mean cutting taste? Baker Kaili McIntyre, owner of Wheatless in Seattle, doesn't think so.

Ten years ago, Kaili McIntyre’s gluten-free baked goods seemed a bit suspicious to many Seattleites.

After all, how could muffins, scones, cakes and breads possibly taste good without wheat flour?

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, McIntyre is far less likely to need to convince potential customers that gluten-free cooking doesn’t mean sacrificing taste. McIntyre’s shop and wholesale bakery, Wheatless in Seattle, is just one of numerous outlets selling gluten-free goods in the Puget Sound area. And not only is McIntyre surviving, but her wholesale business has been growing so fast, she’s searching for kitchen space much larger than her Greenwood location.

“People are no longer weirded out by gluten-free,” McIntyre said.

Thanks to growing awareness and public interest, gluten-free products like those baked by McIntyre have taken off in the last decade. The goods represent a stark departure from traditional baking because the protein gluten is found in many common cooking ingredients, such as wheat, barley, rye and malt.

The movement toward gluten-free cooking has emerged in part because doctors are increasingly diagnosing celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten causes the body’s immune system to attack itself. Symptoms among celiac patients range widely, and can include stomach distress, skin problems, arthritis, headaches, hair loss, fatigue and a number of other health problems.

For some celiac patients, even a tiny bit of gluten contamination sets off severe physical reactions. For them, eating an entirely gluten-free diet is a necessity. Another increasingly large group of people don’t have celiac disease but find they simply feel better and healthier if they avoid gluten.

On a personal note, I’ve become far more aware of gluten intolerance since several people in my family have been diagnosed with celiac disease. My mother dealt with stomach problems, weight loss and fatigue for years before her doctor figured out gluten was making her sick. While I haven’t developed the disease yet, I ask my doctor to test my blood every so often, as I’m well aware of the damage gluten can be doing to one’s body if undiagnosed.

Thanks to the growing awareness of both celiac disease and other types of gluten intolerance, sales of gluten-free products have risen sharply in the last few years. The Asian chain P.F. Chang’s offers an entire gluten-free menu. Nearly any local grocery store offers gluten-free baked goods, frozen items and packaged food. As a pioneer of gluten-free baking, McIntyre has witnessed the movement’s growth firsthand. 

McIntyre’s journey to gluten-free baking began 15 years ago, when her aches and pains led a doctor to diagnose her with wheat and rice allergies. She found a few gluten-free products in a specialty grocery store, took bites of them and then tossed them all in the garbage.

“There was just nothing out there that tasted good,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre made half-hearted attempts over the next few years to cut back on gluten, but didn’t really take action until after the birth of her daughter. At that point, her arthritis grew so bad she could barely walk. Her skin erupted in frequent rashes, and she’d scratch until she bled.

McIntyre, who was running a restaurant and bakery in Shoreline called Kaili’s Kitchen, decided to address her health problems head on in 2001 by transforming her shop into a gluten-free facility. She began cooking baked goods, pasta dishes, pot pies, fish and chips, and a number of other dishes–all gluten-free. Unsure about the public’s perception of gluten-free cooking, McIntyre initially kept some items with gluten on the menu. 

As word got out about her venture, more and more people with celiac disease or gluten allergies began visiting Kaili’s Kitchen. Some of them, upon being served a dish like gluten-free pot pie, began crying because they hadn’t been able to eat something like that for so many years.

“They were so happy to find food they could eat,” McIntyre said.

The customer response was so positive, McIntyre decided to go 100 percent gluten-free. In 2003, she moved the bakery to Edmonds, and never brought a sprinkle of wheat flour into the premises. 

Developing quality gluten-free recipes meant trial and error in the kitchen. When McIntyre began, many of her baked goods turned out dry and crumbly, and broke apart when handled. It took experimentation with different flours and xanthan gum to nail the appropriate consistency. Some attempts failed completely. McIntyre tried garbanzo bean flour once, and found it made her carrot cake terribly bitter. She’s worked hard to perfect her recipes, and make sure anyone–gluten-free or not–would want to eat them.

“There’s still a misconception that gluten-free doesn’t taste good,” McIntyre said.

(Side note: After a visit to Wheatless in Seattle, I was loaded up with samples of McIntyre's gluten-free baked goods. In the name of research, I happily tasted banana orange rosemary bread, a zucchini spice muffin, an apple turnover, pizza crust with rosemary thyme pesto, and a bar cookie, and can report that the treats were every bit as wickedly tempting as their gluten-filled siblings.)

Though McIntyre worried about the financial repercussions of transforming her business into an entirely gluten-free establishment, she found that she managed to attract fans from the get-go. The first month after the switch, Kaili’s Kitchen brought in $10,000. Five years ago, McIntyre moved the shop to Greenwood. She renamed it DaVinci’s, and then when gluten-free people reported trouble finding her online, she changed it again to Wheatless in Seattle. This summer, McIntyre said, has proved to be her best season yet.

Though she long ago eliminated gluten from her bakery’s kitchen, McIntyre continues to adapt her recipes to keep pace with changing dietary demands. She used to use eggs and dairy products when she baked, but so many customers requested items without, she’s since eliminated both. Since some gluten-free individuals also have trouble with rice–including McIntyre herself–she decided to make the bakery rice-free as of Aug. 15. Instead, she uses a combination of sorghum, tapioca and other flours.

Some dietary requests, however, will likely never be fully accommodated. A few customers ask for sugar and yeast-free products, but McIntyre doesn’t envision changing the entire bakery into a sugarless zone. Instead, her daughter plans to make a handful of sugar- and yeast-free goods.

While customers regularly journey to the bakery, most of the revenue at Wheatless in Seattle these days comes from the wholesale business. McIntyre sells her goods to PCC Natural MarketsMad Pizza, Pyramid Alehouse, the Neighborhood Bar and Grill chain -- which includes -- and a number of other outlets. 

Though McIntyre now has far more competition in the gluten-free space than she did a decade ago, she embraces the change. She marvels at the fact that she can walk into any Seattle-area grocery store and find gluten-free pizza, chicken nuggets, cookie dough ice cream and any number of products. Soon, McIntyre predicts, most every restaurant will include gluten-free items on their menus.

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