bottom wheat
Image: Katy Lemay

A 2,000-POUND SACK of dried garbanzo beans hangs from four giant hooks near the 25-foot-high ceiling of a processing room at Milwaukie-based Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods Inc, a producer of flours, cereals and mixes made from whole grains. With gravity’s aid, the beans are funneled into a simple mill that resembles an old-fashioned washing machine, where they are crushed between two stone wheels into a fine flour.

So low-tech is the milling process that this room—its floors dusted with powder, its walls painted white—seems almost anachronistic. What makes it in fact a thoroughly modern space is not what is here, but what isn’t: Sequestered from the rest of the Bob’s Red Mill production lines, this is a dedicated gluten-free zone. “Our goal is total segregation,” says marketing manager Matthew Cox.

Gluten, a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, barley and spelt, is the stuff that gives dough its elasticity. Owing to a weblike structure that locks in the gas bubbles produced by yeast, gluten is the “glue” that gives a loaf of bread its airy, chewy consistency and prevents a chocolate chip cookie from disintegrating into a desiccated pile of crumbs.

But for Bob’s Red Mill and other food manufacturers, developing products without gluten—from garbanzo flour to brownie mix to oat cereal—has become big business. According to Spins, a market research firm for the natural foods sector, sales of products labeled gluten-free climbed 33 percent between 2004 and 2006 in the United States. Bob’s Red Mill, which began marketing just 5 gluten-free products in 2000, now has 52 in its catalog—and gluten-free products now comprise a full 25 percent of the company’s approximately $40 million in annual sales.

Unlike dietary fads driven by culinary vogue (consider the cabbage soup diet, a popular regimen in mid-1980s that encouraged people seeking to lose weight quickly to consume more vegetables from the Brassica genus), the demand for gluten-free foods is being prompted by a rise in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease. A genetically determined inflammatory disorder of the small intestine, celiac disease is triggered by the consumption of gluten. But because symptoms can present in myriad ways (ranging from mild bloating, rashes and headaches to severe fatigue, abdominal pain and anemia), it’s been historically difficult to diagnose the problem. So difficult, that until the 1990s, celiac disease was thought to affect only about 1 in 5,000 people, a number far too skimpy to court much interest from business.

As a result, the few breadlike products available to the celiac patient 10 years ago “pretty much tasted like cardboard,” says Cynthia Kupper, director of the Auburn, Wash.-based Gluten Intolerance Group, which advocates for celiac patients and advises the food industry on minimizing gluten contamination. Kupper’s own celiac disease was misdiagnosed as Crohn’s disease until a savvy surgeon delivered the (relatively) good news.

But in the early 2000s, after an exhaustive epidemiological screening of 13,000 people in the United States, the estimate of celiac-disease incidence came in at 1 in 133, which translates to about 3 million Americans alone. Suddenly more food manufacturers, grocery stores and even restaurant chains—everyone from Kraft to Outback Steakhouse—began to think of gluten-free as a potential moneymaker. After all, the only way to treat celiac disease is to abstain from gluten for life. Those companies that can produce a tasty pancake mix that’s made from sorghum flour and tapioca starch, with xantham gum to make the flapjack stick together (as Bob’s Red Mill does), will enjoy a lifelong customer base—and one that’s willing to pay up to 50 percent more for the gluten-free version of the product.

That partly explains why Portland has also seen a spate of start-up food companies in the last few years, like Beaverton-based Ariko Foods, a producer of gluten-free snacks. (“‘Gluten-free’ is a buzzword at the food trade-shows right now,” says Angela Ichwan, Ariko’s CEO.) Angeline’s, which began its gluten-free business in Sisters, now bakes its line of breads, cookies and snack bars in town, and Portland grocers (including Fred Meyer, Whole Foods and Wild Oats) stock its products. “Gluten intolerance is the most common thing people ask me about,” says Christi Reed, a New Seasons nutritionist, who regularly fields calls from newly diagnosed celiacs. New Seasons even hosts monthly “gluten-free tours” of its stores to help people identify pie crusts, breads and grains that they can eat.

Portland is also home to one of the only fine-dining restaurants in the country to offer a fully gluten-free menu. Grolla, on NE Killingsworth, regularly hosts diners from as far away as New York who fly into Portland to dine on Mediterranean-inspired meals that were prepared in a gluten-free kitchen. Even the bread pudding on the dessert menu is made from gluten-free rolls. “We have some customers who are so sensitive to gluten that they’ve been hospitalized just from exposure to trace gluten in other restaurants’ air,” says chef and co-owner Chris Lachmann, whose wife was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1993, as were his two daughters in 2004.

He may not have a lock on the market for long. Gluten awareness is about to get some governmental boosterism in the form of Food and Drug Administration regulations that will set federal standards for products identified as gluten-free, just as the agency did with the organic label. That should contribute to gluten-free businesses’ bottom lines: When the FDA released its new food pyramid recommending more whole grains in 2005, Bob’s Red Mill saw increased demand for its whole-grain products. The new regulations will do the same for gluten-free goods. That’s great news for celiacs, who soon will have even more cakes to choose from—and be able to eat them, too.