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Gluten-free restaurants in Oakland go against the grain to provide safe, healthy fare

on December 16, 2020

Sadie Scheffer baked gluten-free bread for the first time in 2009 after trying to impress her college crush. Scheffer found out he had a gluten intolerance and taught herself to make the specialized bread, so she could win him over. She succeeded at both. 

Now the two have been married for four-and-a-half years and they both work at the gluten-free sourdough bakery that Scheffer owns. She started Bread Srsly (pronounced ‘Seriously’) with just $100. 

Spending on gluten-free foods in the U.S. was more than $23.9 billion in 2020. This is more than double the amount that was spent in 2015. 

More specialty food and beverage companies are starting to cater to a market of consumers with gluten-free dietary restrictions. One explanation for the increased popularity of gluten-free diets is people wanting to lose weight quickly by eliminating carbs. The benefit for people with gluten intolerance is having more products increases their options.

Scheffer says Bread Srsly’s typical customers are people who shop at natural grocery stores and pay careful attention to the foods they eat.

“Our internet sales have skyrocketed like five times what they were before [the pandemic],” Scheffer said. She and her staff bake about 9,000 loaves of sourdough bread each week.

Freshly baked loaves of gluten-free sourdough bread from Bread Srsly

Scheffer’s bread is made like traditional sourdough bread. Flour and water are combined and left at room temperature and someone adds more flour and water to the mixture over the course of several days. The only difference is that Scheffer uses sorghum flour, a popular gluten-free flour.

Scheffer says people are “cautiously excited” when they find her bakery. She gets great online reviews. Lea A., a Yelp reviewer, said that Bread Srsly’s sourdough bread is “like heaven in your mouth.” 

In the early days of her business, Scheffer used to make unique flavors every day. Her most memorable flavor was salsa-flavored bread. 

Only one person bought it,” Shaffer laughs. “It was like fluorescent orange. It had cilantro and onions and hot peppers in it. And it was really good!” 

Scheffer is one of a growing number of businesses whose facilities are 100% gluten free, making them safer for people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten intolerance is when the body cannot process gluten, which is the protein found in some grains like wheat. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population. If someone with celiac eats gluten, it can have a severe impact on their intestines, causing them not to digest food or absorb nutrients. 

Neha Shah, a registered dietician, says gluten intolerance can cause symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. Eating gluten can cause some people to have symptoms that interfere with their daily routines.

“Our body is in some ways a machine,” Shah said.

Dr. John Swartzberg is a clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and also emphasizes the importance of getting tested if you suspect you have celiac.

“If you think you have celiac disease, don’t start eliminating gluten from your diet,” Dr. Swartzberg said.

He says that people who eliminate gluten prematurely could possibly receive incorrect results from their blood tests. 

Dr. Swartzberg said that one problem with the increased marketing of gluten-free food is that people are misled to believe that gluten is unhealthy for everybody. He said there is no evidence that gluten is harmful for people without celiac disease.

“It’s deceiving the public and it’s leading them down a track where we will be spending more money on gluten free foods that are more expensive,” Dr. Swartzberg said.

He also said that people could possibly not get all of the nutrients they need if they incorrectly eliminate gluten.

Neha Shah, a registered dietician and owner of Neha Shah Nutrition, also emphasizes the importance of being evaluated by a physician that specializes in gastrointestinal health. She said her biggest challenge is undoing many of the misconceptions that clients have. 

Shah says many people think they are following a gluten-free diet because they don’t eat bread or pasta, but may not realize they are actually being exposed to hidden forms of gluten. Shah says people can easily be exposed to gluten that is hidden in sauces or through cross contamination happening in kitchens where food is being prepared.

Shah said there is a learning curve for how to truly eat gluten free. 

“The food choices that we make are not just influenced by what we like, what we dislike,” Shah said. She said that people are also influenced by cooking ability, finances, and culture.

The options for gluten-free diners in Oakland are increasing. Anwen Baumeister is the owner of The Well Organic Kitchen, a traditional Chinese food restaurant in Oakland. 

Baumeister is also an herbalist and incorporates healing herbs onto the menu at the restaurant, which is also 100% gluten free. 

“I strive to eat the foods that my body knows and that my ancestors knew,” Baumeister said.

Rice is an essential ingredient at the restaurant and appears in many of the dishes like rice porridge.

“It’s the meal that my mom ate for the first 24 years of her life, three times a day,” Baumeister said.

Rice porridge topped with shiitake mushrooms, almonds, daikon, & cilantro from The Well Organic Kitchen in Oakland

Baumeister has also made “kindness” a key ingredient at The Well Organic Kitchen. She’s trying to make gluten-free food accessible to everyone so the karma bowl is a pay-what-you-can price. Customers can choose to pay up to $20 for the bowl to offset the cost for those who cannot afford to pay anything.

Baumeister said even customers who cannot pay anything get a bowl.

Reducing Stigma

People who are diagnosed with celiac disease, or gluten intolerance face the embarrassment of having to ask several questions when dining any place other than home. There is sometimes a social stigma of constantly asking questions about the ingredients in the food you eat. Even though for celiac patients it’s essential. 

Tammy Chang, nutritionist and owner of The Nourished Belly, consults with clients who have a more serious form of gluten intolerance, such as celiac disease. Many of her other clients have a variety of symptoms, like stomach cramping, bloating, and overall irritation. 

“I think that is one thing that all Americans and most people in the world have in common is this really divorced way of looking at our food,” Chang said. 

“We have no idea how it’s grown or how it’s made and where we’re putting a lot of things into our body that we really have no idea what we’re eating.” 

Tammy Chang, Owner of The Nourished Belly

For clients who must eliminate gluten, she advocates for a diet based on whole foods because it improves health for everyone. Chang said the best kind of specialty diet is one that is “nutrient dense” and includes a variety of fruits and vegetables. 

Jen Cafferty is the CEO and founder of The Nourished Group. She says offering gluten-free food isn’t optional any more.

Cafferty said,“If you’re going to open up a restaurant, you better have great gluten free food that is prepared and served safely,” Cafferty said.

Cafferty bought the app “Find Me Gluten Free” in 2013, which makes finding a gluten-free restaurant easier. Users can search for location, business name or type to find restaurants that are 100% gluten free or those that offer gluten free options. 

She says that offering one or two items for gluten-free consumers is not enough.

“You’re not just getting the business of the person with celiac disease. You are getting the business of that person’s family, their friends and their coworkers because they all have to eat as well,” Cafferty said. 

Reuniting Gluten-Free People with Beer

Many Americans like to unwind at the end of a long day with a beer. 

Michael Bernstein opened Buckwild Brewing Company in November in downtown Oakland, he earned the title as the first 100% gluten-free brewery in California. 

“Oakland picked me as much as I picked Oakland,” Bernstein said. 

Bernstein adopted a gluten-free lifestyle because of migraines and other health challenges resulting from eating gluten. As a triathlon athlete, he needed to be in optimal health to remain competitive. 

Bernstein said, “I think maybe one of the unintended consequences of the [gluten-free] movement is it got people more focused on what they’re putting in their bodies.”

Bernstein missed being able to enjoy a beer at the end of the day with friends. He began brewing for fun in his garage. After six years, he started to think he could replicate his beer on a larger scale. Bernstein’s entry into the gluten-free market began after collecting anecdotal evidence from friends and researching the market for gluten-free beer.

“I’ve always kind of been a bit of a closet entrepreneur just looking for the right opportunity to help me strike out on my own.” Bernstein said.

Bernstein knew he was ready to move forward with his idea after holding blind taste tests for his family. 

“The comments didn’t say that this doesn’t taste like beer. It was the opposite. You know, wow, this is fantastic!”

Dr. Charles Bamforth, professor emeritus at UC Davis, who has decades of research and experience brewing traditional beer was intrigued by the idea of creating a gluten-free beer.

Traditional beer uses ingredients that contain gluten, such as malted grain, barley, and wheat. This makes it unhealthy for people with gluten intolerance to consume. Gluten-free beers use alternative grains that do not contain gluten, such as buckwheat or sorghum. 

“It’s another dimension. And if it means that people who would otherwise avoid beer because they’re generally gluten intolerant, then the availability of these products I think is very exciting.” Bamforth said.

Mike Bernstein, Owner of Buck Wild Brewing in Oakland

Bernstein, the owner of Buck Wild Brewing, says he hopes to continue growing and providing “craft beer for all,” which is his business motto. A year from now Bernstein has high hopes that production will increase from the 400 barrels they brewed this year to 1,500 by the end of 2021.

He said, “We expect our business to still be in Oakland kicking butt!”

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