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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.