Opportunity Gurgles 

A cottage industry has sprung up in recent years to service gluten-free lifestyles.

On a quiet Monday afternoon, two professionally-dressed women walk into Mariposa Bakery's spacious Oakland warehouse. Tucked away in a brick building on a stretch of Telegraph Avenue with sparse foot traffic, Mariposa does double duty as a wholesale bakery and the East Bay's first and only gluten-free cafe.

The women approach the counter, where tiny Dixie-cup samples of muffins, cookies, and biscotti beckon. Marlene Rubain, a neighborhood resident, goes for the morning muffin, a hearty blend of carrots, walnuts, raisins, dried apple, coconut, orange juice, and spices. "Mmm, that's good," she coos.

"We're a gluten-free bakery," explains proud owner Patti Furey-Crane, a tall and lanky mother of two with glasses, wavy strawberry-blond hair, and an affable smile.

That's just fine with Rubain, who has never heard of celiac disease. "Okay, the morning muffin will come home with me," she declares.

The new bakery's niche clearly isn't limited to celiacs. Increasingly, people with other autoimmune diseases, and even the unafflicted, are choosing the gluten-free life. "Everyone is suffering from something," Rubain comments. "It's related to how badly we're treating our environment."

Furey-Crane isn't celiac that she knows of, but she maintains the strict diet anyhow. She battled chronic stomach pain for ten years, avoiding doctors because she lacked health insurance. She finally went gluten-free after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago, and subsequently read that people with autoimmune disorders tend to fare better without gluten. Immediately, her pain went away, she says.

The bakery owner never got tested for celiac. "If I got a positive diagnosis, or a negative diagnosis, I'd still be gluten-free because it seemed like the nutritional thing to do for MS," she says. "I already have one diagnosis, I don't need two."

Finding appetizing gluten-free foods proved a challenge. While pregnant, Furey-Crane craved sweets, but found that foods without gluten — which gives them their spongy, elastic quality — suffered in the taste department. She started experimenting in her kitchen and eventually found the right mix of gluten-free flours to create crunchy biscotti and dense chocolate brownies with moist, sugary zing. In 2004, Mariposa Bakery was born as a wholesale business — the retail cafe just opened in June.

It's not alone out there. Increasing demand for gluten-free products has resulted in an explosion of gluten-free mom-and-pop makers of cookies, cakes, English muffins, pizza crusts, breads, doughnuts, bagels, and everything in between. Contrary to other health-based diets, the gluten-free trend tends to be about finding ways to mimic all the yummy — but not necessarily healthy — foods that contain gluten.

Mike Groff started the Berkeley-based I Can Eat That Bakery about three years ago. Five years earlier, his wife had been diagnosed with celiac. "One of the frustrating things was not finding decent bread on the market," he said. Frozen gluten-free breads are often stale and require toasting, while available mixes demanded added ingredients, in addition to time for baking.

After considerable trial and error, Groff came up with three products: white bread, wheat-style bread, and pizza crust, available premixed, frozen, and ready to bake. Although he recently closed his bakery due to the demands of his day job, the crust is still available at Mariposa and at Pizza Rustica in Oakland.

East Bay grocers such as Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, Harvest House, Open Sesame, Farmer Joe's, Alameda Natural Grocery, and Piedmont Grocery increasingly stock gluten-free items. But stores aren't always consistent, and the products vary. People often need to shop around to find everything on their list. For convenience, many turn to web sites such as the Gluten-Free Mall and Gluten-Free Pantry, which offer a wider selection.

But a happy digestive system doesn't come cheap. A loaf of gluten-free bread at Whole Foods costs $9. A bag of gluten-free pretzels at Berkeley Bowl costs $7. And online shipping costs also can add up to an expensive diet. For many, the extra cash is worth the relief — the hardest part is just realizing that gluten-free is the way to be.


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