When Jennifer Harris was diagnosed with celiac disease 14 years ago, her dietary options were frustratingly spare.
The condition, which damages the lining of the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of food nutrients, is exacerbated by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats.
Forced to adopt a gluten-free diet, Harris ordered her food online, sometimes paying so much for shipping that no matter how horrible these gluten-free products tasted, she'd eat them anyway. "There weren't enough products in grocery stores, and health food stores were just catching on to it," she said. "I went without bread for a long time."
Now, Harris is not only a gluten expert, but one who is excited about the expanding food options for those who must adhere to a diet free of the sticky substance that frequently acts as a binding agent in some cakes, pastries and sauces.
Harris, who lives in Norcross, is the program chair of the Atlanta Metro Celiacs --- a group of about 200 --- as well as a product specialist for organic market Return to Eden. In addition, she is also marketing manager for Decatur's gluten- and allergen-free bakery Pure Knead and an industry consultant for her own company, Just Gluten Free.
Yes, she knows her gluten, which can also be said for some major food manufacturers that have realized the interest in and necessity of gluten-free products.
But, for all of the companies churning out tasty gluten-free products, Harris is also familiar with the ones that don't rate very highly on the taste-o-meter.
Enter Anne Byrn, the "Cake Mix Doctor" whose recent book, "The Cake Mix Doctor Bakes Gluten-Free" (Workman, $14.95), exists as a road map to enhance flavor in these less-than-savory choices.
About three years ago, Byrn, a former food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who lives in Tennessee, noticed an increase in reader e-mail inquiring about gluten-free recipes.
Then, she said, "about 18 months ago, Betty Crocker came out with gluten-free cake mixes and that's when I decided it was time to write a book."
For about five months, Byrn tested the cake mixes, which are based on rice flour and contain no artificial coloring or flavoring, to figure out ways to spruce up their bland core.
All her add-ins --- orange juice, espresso powder, peanut butter, almond extract --- are gluten-free and with each recipe, Byrn offers a dairy-free option, such as soy milk for buttermilk or coconut milk instead of sour cream. "I'm stepping into this world where flavor and taste are critical," Byrn said. "I wanted to create cakes that, if there is one person in a family who must eat gluten-free, the whole family can still enjoy it. It's opened my eyes to a world of folks who live with food allergies and sensitivities."
Some medical studies have found that a gluten-free diet can aid children with autism. Proponents, from developmental specialists to parents, say that removing gluten helps gastrointestinal issues and prevents the build-up of protein by-products, which they believe affects behavior.
Also new to understanding gluten is Bruce Alterman, owner of the Brickery Grill & Bar in Sandy Springs.
About six weeks ago, the restaurant unveiled a gluten-free menu, featuring crab cakes, steaks, salads, soups, chicken and sides including French fries and sweet potato souffle.
The Brickery is one of several local restaurants to add gluten-free options --- Yeah Burger and Fuego Mundo are other recent recruits --- joining chains including P.F. Chang's, Panera Bread, Boston Market and Ted's Montana Grill.
"It's a learning curve," Alterman said. "We're going to learn a lot more about what we need to do to elevate our game. It's not a big universe [of gluten-free eaters], but it is very meaningful to that percentage."
Although gluten-free cooking can often cost more due to the organic materials required, Alterman said at this point, the specialized offerings are foods already on the Brickery's menu that never contained gluten initially.
It's this type of expansion of products and knowledge that Harris finds heartening, especially when she talks to newcomers in the Atlanta Metro Celiacs group.
"I didn't have anyone to turn to 14 years ago. Dietitians didn't know what gluten-free was," she said. "It's what I wish I had back then, this helping hand that tells you not to panic, there's good food around. You don't have to worry that you're going to starve."
Copyright 2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution