One of New York City’s most expensive Italian restaurants, Del Posto, estimates that on each night of service, one-third of their tables has at least one diner who is gluten-free. Del Posto’s chef, arguably one of the finest pasta cooks in the country, is Mark Ladner. He says that the protein found in wheat that helps to create its elasticity, gluten, is a crucial ingredient to his success. He also admits that eaters of a gluten-free diet are fast becoming a significant percentage of his patrons. Ladner now offers every one of his pasta dishes with a gluten-free option. He believes that gluten-free dining is not just a fad.
Ten years ago, only sufferers of celiac disease and parents of autistic children knew anything about the negative health impacts that gluten can have on a body. Today, it is likely that everyone knows someone who is gluten-free, if they are not already eating that way themselves. According to recent research, over 25 percent of Americans are cutting back on their gluten intake, even removing it from their diets completely. There are optimistic predictions that products that are in the gluten-free market will make $15.6 billion by the year 2016. Even the Food and Drug Administration has passed gluten-free labeling laws that will go into effect this August.
Those who observe eating and nutrition trends in the US say that the gluten-free eating regimen is liable to have a greater impact than the usual run-of-the-mill diet fad. This is due to several factors. For one, education about genetically modified foods is reaching more and more concerned citizens. Also, food allergies are affecting a greater number of adults and children than has been previously recorded. Plus, the health of the digestive system, particularly for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and celiac disease, has become an issue that people are finally putting their attentions toward. The gluten-free diet covers all of these concerns.
An associate professor at New York University, Amy Bentley, works in the Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health department. She sees that not only are more people engaged in food issues, but they are also confused by them. Extremely complex issues are currently being addressed. Couple that with a food industry that purposefully misleads consumers and the result is cacophonous.
Sandy Altizer is a registered dietitian who has celiac disease. She operates a support group in Knoxville, Tennessee at the children’s hospital. Recently, Altizer helped to organize a Gluten-Free Vendor Fair. About 1,100 people visited the food festival. Some of them were diagnosed with celiac disease, while others have gluten intolerance. Many of the fair goers were people who have discovered for themselves how much better they feel after removing some or all gluten from their diets.
For Altizer, food is her medicine. Though science has not yet caught up with the everyday experiences of consumers, at least the food producers have. More products are becoming available every year that give gluten-free dieters better choices. At a grocery store in Seattle recently, a cashier was saying that she started eating gluten-free about two months ago. She said that not only was her belly feeling less bloated, but she had noticed that her memory had improved.
That sort of result is right in line with what many parents of children with autism are saying. On an online forum, one mother shared an experience that brought others to tears. Before removing gluten from her son’s diet, he was verbally non-communicative and did not participate with other children and TV shows, like Dora the Explorer. About a month after completely taking the gluten out of his diet, she discovered him standing in front of the television, doing everything that Dora was directing her audience to do. A couple of weeks later, and this is what brought on the waterworks, he woke up and said, “Good Morning, Mommy.” He had never done that before. Soon after that he began asking and answering questions. The mother attributes all of this progress to removing the gluten from her son’s diet.
It is personal testimonials like that that are driving the popularity of the gluten-free diet. For Lidia Bastianich, who is co-owner of Del Posto and also owns New York’s Felidia, the aftereffect of this most recent “food tsunami” is a good thing. She believes that the reality is that certain foods are causing allergic reactions in people, “Our bodies are reacting to something in how we eat.”
In the restaurant world, the demand for gluten-free options is forever changing the way grains are used and prepared in the kitchen. French nouvelle cuisine did the same thing, resulting in simpler and lighter dishes that took health and fresh ingredients into consideration.
According to Ladner, who has fully embraced the gluten-free revolution, his kitchen has now gone through a philosophical change that has wonderfully altered their world. The diet is prompting chefs to investigate new grains and experiment with cooking techniques.
Ladner is also planning to open a chain of restaurants that will feature gluten-free bowls of deliciousness, called Pasta Flyer. He believes that this new attention to gluten and grains is evidence of the integration of two major forces of the way Americans eat: the first is based on the environment and healthfulness and the second on the celebration of yummy pleasure. Clearly not just a fad, the gluten-free diet could be a glimpse into this nation’s culinary future.
Opinion By Stacy Lamy