Richard D’souza grabbed a container and started filling it with kale, potatoes and chickpeas.
“Do you want to try this here or should I pack it up for you?” he said. “Here. Let me show you around.”
D’souza owns one of very few all gluten-free eating establishments in Baltimore on 123 West 27th St in Charles Village called Sweet 27. His café and bakery, which is family-owned is especially known for its cupcakes. D’souza decided to open up the restaurant with his wife when she was diagnosed with Celiac disease.
“We started wholesale and supplied to stores around us,” D’souza said. “We wanted more control of our products, so we started this business. My wife has Celiac disease. She’s a pastry chef, so she bakes the cupcakes.”
As more people are adopting gluten-free diets, more businesses are accommodating them with gluten-free products, like D’souza and his wife have done with their café and bakery.
The amount of people going on gluten-free diets has increased in the United States. Celiac disease is the main cause for a going on a gluten-free diet. It is an autoimmune disease, according to Eric Silldorff, a professor at the department of biological sciences at Towson University. The disease includes a response to gluten or a subset of gluten proteins.Gluten is a combination of gliadin and glutenin, which are proteins. They are found in wheat, barley, and rye plants, according to Sildorff.
“The body’s response is inflammation of the small bowel which reduces diffusional surface area and impedes nutrient absorption,” Sildorff said. “This usually results in diarrhea.”
Sildorff said that limiting intake of gluten stops this reaction from occurring. Companies as well as restaurants have developed gluten-free recipes for people who need to reduce their gluten intake.
Since August 2013, the FDA enforced a regulation that packaged food must contain a certain amount of gluten to have a gluten-free label, according to Alicia Carango, the communications assistant at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Carango said that people with celiac disease are able to tolerate a small amount of gluten in their bodies. She said it is virtually impossible to have absolutely no gluten in your diet.
Carango said that the foundation she works for attempts to help people who are gluten-intolerant and who suffer from the disease.
“Our goal at NFCA is to increase diagnoses and improve the lives of those living a lifelong gluten-free diet,” she said.“The NFCA does not advocate for everyone to adopt a gluten-free diet, only those who need to.”
Curango said that a diet that does not have gluten does not necessarily help people lose weight.
Although cutting out carbohydrates that contain gluten like bagels and bread might be helpful, eating gluten-free sweets can actually cause people to gain weight.
“Many experts agree that a gluten-free diet is only necessary for those with a medical condition like Celiac disease,” Carango said. “People with celiac disease often gain weight once going on a gluten-free diet, as they are absorbing more nutrients from food than they were prior to adopting a gluten-free diet.”
Although gluten-free food sales are rising, only one percent of the population has celiac disease according to National Institute of Health statistics. People are opting for gluten-free diets for other reasons as well. CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program used by police academies, military special operations units and martial artists, advocates a gluten-free diet. One CrossFit blog, Crossfitbeyond.com, explains that the removal of gluten can help the body’s immune system to rest and that muscles can be repaired more efficiently. Also, according to the blog, a gluten-free diet can help maintain stable blood sugar levels during exercise which is helpful to muscle strength and stamina.
Mary Sparshott decided to go on a gluten-free diet to lose weight. She heard about William Davis’s book “Wheat Belly” on a Dr. Oz show where Davis explained that our bodies do not have the proper enzyme to process GMO foods like wheat properly and that it is a cause of obesity.
“I wasn’t completely sold. Nor was I ready to give up my beloved bread and pasta,” she said. “But during this time I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and part of my treatment required me to avoid iodized salt.”
Sparshott said that this meant that she had to avoid bread and pasta like she would have to if she was gluten-free.
“What I noticed was that after three weeks off of wheat and pasta, my acid reflux disappeared and I was able to go off my medication for the reflux,” she said. “I also lost nearly 10 pounds. Since then I have stayed gluten-free.”
When D’souza’s wife Rene started developing symptoms of depression, she went to the doctor and found out that she had Celiac disease. As a former pastry chef, Rene, along with her husband, decided to open up Sweet 27. The bakery and café was a small colorful nook among other brown brick buildings. A sign peaked out the side displaying a cupcake and the words Sweet 27. Inside, there were a few circular tables. A couple sat at a table by a window drinking coffee.
Behind a counter, a variety of cupcakes were displayed for customers to ogle at. Some cupcakes were red velvet, Nutella, lemon, peppermint, and D’souza’s favorite—German chocolate.
A variety of customers took advantage of the gluten-free food for different reasons.
“We satisfy many needs besides just gluten-free food,” D’souza said. “If you don’t eat eggs or dairy, we have food for you too.”
One Hindu college-aged girl chatted on the phone as she browsed the menu. There were plentyof options on the menu to support her religious vegetarian preferences.
“Does this pizza have meat on it?” she asked as she pointed to a picture on the menu. One man walked in who had long dirty-blonde dreadlocks. He eyed all of the cupcakes behind the counter, considering which one would satisfy his cravings.
“I recommend the German chocolate one,” D’souza said, as the woman behind the counter took out a box to put the cupcakes in. “Another one of my favorites is the lemon cream.”
D’souza said that sometimes children who have autism come in to the shop.
“We get a lot of parents who bring in children who have autism,” he said. “After two or three months of going on a gluten-free diet, we see changes. Doctors would’ve lost hope with them.”
In the past five years a gluten-free diet has steadily gained popularity as a weight loss method, a far cry from the proven medical benefits of this diet. A report by the consumer survey firm National Purchase Diary Group reported that over 30 percent of Americans are making a conscious effort to cut down on the amount of gluten they consume.
“Gluten-free diets are like the Michael Kors purse of diet,” said Samra Blanchard, an associate professor of pediatrics who heads the University of Maryland’s Clinical Celiac Program.
“They’re a new fashion. Gluten-free is cool now.”
But Blanchard said that it is possible to have a nutritionally complete diet without gluten. In fact, many gluten-free dieters don’t have much difficulty adjusting to life without wheat because businesses have paid attention to this growing trend.
Many big name brands like Heinz’s, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, and Nestle have stocked up grocery stores with gluten-free options to appeal to this growing demographic. You’d be hard-pressed now to go into neighborhood grocery store and not see at least one aisle devoted to gluten-free foods.
Sales of gluten-free food reached close to $4.5 billion dollars in 2013 and the number of gluten-
free companies and products is expected to grow 25 percent in the next year. United Airlines announced last month that all their planes will be offering gluten-free in-flight meal options and the pizza chain Dominos now offers gluten-free crusts for all their pizza options. Even Girl Scouts have released a gluten-free cookie.
If gluten-free is just a trend, it’s still a significant one.
“I wouldn’t say that going gluten-free is bad or good, it just depends on how you go about it,” says Joanna Herman, a pediatric dietician at University of Maryland. “It’s not a harmful trend because you’re still removing major carbs from your diet.”
Herman also doubts the claims of weight loss after going without gluten. She said that a more logical explanation is that people are eliminating fatty and carbohydrate-heavy foods from their diets which will naturally lead to weight loss, regardless of how much gluten is consumed.
“There’s no evidence that it causes weight loss. It’s a personal choice, like choosing to be vegetarian or to cut out milk products,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard does warn that just because a product is free of gluten, that doesn’t mean it’s free of other nasty stuff, like preservatives, and isn’t highly processed. She said that giving up gluten but still consuming high-fat junk food is a lost cause.
D’souza was quick to mention that going gluten-free isn’t “a South Beach Diet” and that his customers don’t come in to his bakery as part of a slim-down plan.
D’souza walked down a flight of steps to the adjacent building which he is transforming into a bar that’ll work alongside Sweet 27. On the wall is a painted mural of Baltimore legends, such as Michael Phelps, John Waters and the drag queen Divine, gathered around a table enjoying a meal.
“You can get the same food here as you can get in the café,” D’souza said. “The only difference is that here, you can sit down and have a nice glass of wine. At the café, it can be BYOB.”
Downstairs, the rich oaky browns and burgundy of the bar, accented with the silver of brand new equipment, on the inside contrasts with the pastel, flowery outer façade of the bakery. A young man with shaggy hair was setting up the bar.
“My biggest goal is to get gluten-free beers in here,” D’souza said. “We want to make food and drinks for everybody.”
He beamed with pride as he walked around the bar, using a dishrag to wipe off a table top. His enthusiasm for his business showed in the way he talked about the expansion and how he hoped to reach more people once the bar opens.
D’souza reflected on the reason he and his wife started this business in the first place. He wanted to provide gluten-free food for people who cannot live without it—like his wife.
“This is not a diet. This is not a fad,” D’souza said. “Some people’s lives depend on this food.”
D’souza is almost offended when we turned down the food, a rich assortment of colorful and fragrant Indian cuisine he kept offering us, and he muttered, “Take it! Take it! You’ll love it! It’s good!”
“My wife and I worked together for years to make sure the recipes were perfect. That all the dishes tasted perfect,” he said. “For us, going gluten-free wasn’t just a fad. It was a necessity.”