Skip to main content
food pains

Kim Spezowka thought she ranked pretty high on the good mom scale: She baked a loaf of whole-wheat bread almost every day.

So when a doctor suggested her toddler's severe health problems might be due to a gluten sensitivity, she was shocked.

"You're telling me I'm going through all this trouble and possibly killing my child?" the London, Ont., mom recalls asking.

Her whole family went on a diet free of bread, pasta and cereal.

"In four days I had this brand new kid," she says.

In fact, her whole family's health improved. Her husband's digestion problems disappeared. Her own daily headaches subsided. It turned out they all had gluten sensitivities.

But now Ms. Spezowka faced a new challenge: What the heck was she going to feed her family?

Last year, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., reported that 1 in 100 Americans have celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder) - a dramatic increase from rates just a few decades earlier. For those affected, gluten causes an inflammation in the small intestine, which prevents nutrient absorption. Many with celiac disease often keep eating gluten and wreaking havoc on their intestinal lining simply because substitutes are expensive or poor-tasting. But long-term celiacs say that with time and experimentation, one can find a way to substitute a gluten-free alternative for the wheat, rye or barley in any recipe.

When Toronto musician and author Victoria Yeh first switched to a gluten-free diet eight years ago, she was lost.

"I was always hungry because I didn't know what to eat."

She missed baked goods most of all. She tried - and often failed - to replicate them. Chocolate cake with brown rice flour just came out as "a big, hard lump."

But returning to the chronic headaches and stomach irritation that came with eating gluten wasn't an option. She read up on how gluten contributes to food's texture and found she could use starches to bind food, and extra baking powder for leavening.

She recently released the cookbook Where Do I Start? Your Essential Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free and Sugar-Free Food Allergy Cookbook, in which she shares her carefully measured substitutions.

"Once you learn just a few rules of thumb and what gluten does and how to substitute it successfully, it's easy to adapt to the diet," she says.

Ms. Spezowka had similarly bad experiences when she first tried to make whole-wheat bread with whole grain buckwheat.

"You could've played hockey with that loaf of bread," she says.

But she kept at the experiments and learned that coconut flour was great in muffins and cookies, sorghum made a tasty rye-style bread, and rice flour cut the edge off of buckwheat.

Eight years later, she's pleased with the results, but says it may just be because her tastes have changed. Her gluten-eating friends can still taste the difference.

"I say, 'This is just as good!' But no, it's not."

Still, Vancouver baker Jennifer Yong says it is possible to create gluten-free baking that has the same texture and taste as the real deal.

When Ms. Yong took the Baking and Pastry Arts program at Vancouver Community College, she asked instructors if they'd ever consider adding gluten-free baking to the curriculum. They said no - there was no time to cover it and cross-contamination would be an issue, she says.

Ms. Yong was undeterred.

Not a celiac herself, but aware of a burgeoning gluten-free market, she had to do a lot of experimentation before she launched her own gluten-free bakery last year: Homestead Specialty Baking.

After studying dozens of cookbooks and sending some things she pulled out of her oven straight to the trash, she discovered a gluten-free baking mix that she subs in for all-purpose or pastry flour in most of her recipes: a combination of organic brown rice flour, tapioca starch and sweet potato starch.

"It mimics the texture of gluten-filled product the most," she says.

Her brownie bites and sugar-free banana fig date muffins are her top sellers at local farmers' markets. They're even popular among non-celiacs - to the point that she's changed her signage to minimize the emphasis on how her products are gluten-free.

"It's kind of an added bonus. They can't really tell," she says.

Though the North American diet emphasizes gluten-based foods, celiacs shouldn't obsess over finding substitutes for those grains and flours, says Shelley Case, a Regina-based dietician and member of the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association.

"Think about naturally gluten-free foods and base your diets around them first and then add in gluten substitutes," she suggests.

Many of the most popular gluten flour substitutes have minimal nutritional value, she says. White rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch may closely mimic the texture and flavour of favourite foods, but they're low in iron and B vitamins. If newly diagnosed celiacs wish to experiment, they should try high-protein quinoa and whole-grain sorghum (which contains high levels of B vitamins and fibre).

But Ms. Yeh says she can't completely phase some things out of her diet. And why should she, when she's mastered the substitution game with her triple chocolate cake, which recently fooled even her non-celiac friends?

"Everyone just sat around the table after the meal and said that tasted like normal without the full and bloated feeling afterwards," she says.

Editor's note: Clarification: Shelley Case is on the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association. Also, people can be allergic to wheat, but not gluten. This article has been altered to reflect these points.