The University of Arizona’s gluten-free club is relatively new, but don’t call it trendy.
The club was started in the fall of 2011 by current president Emily Rich and one other student, in part to clear up the misconception that gluten-free is a weight-loss fad.
The group, which will hold a free, public expo Sunday, was looking to improve gluten-free dining options on campus and form a community of like-minded students. The club has grown every semester, now having 15 active members and an email list of about 50.
The goals of this weekend’s “Gluten-Free Awareness Expo” are to advocate, educate and increase community awareness about the medical need for gluten-free diets.
Gluten sensitivity is a range of disorders, such as celiac disease or wheat allergy, in which the body reacts adversely to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation.
A problem for many people with gluten sensitivity is cross-contamination, which happens when gluten-free food comes into contact with gluten, either on kitchen utensils, cooking surfaces or prep areas.
“More people are aware of gluten sensitivity now, but there’s still some confusion about it,” Rich, 21, said. “There were gluten-free food choices available on campus before. But they were prepared on shared surfaces and with shared utensils, so people were still getting sick.”
Although more attention has been raised to gluten intolerance over the years, some people believe that gluten-free is a diet fad and aren’t aware that the smallest amount of gluten can make a person with any kind of sensitivity to it very ill, Rich explained.
In monthly meetings with campus dining services, the club brought to its attention the number of gluten-free students on campus. In May of 2013, Core Plus became the UA’s dedicated gluten-free restaurant and prepares a line of premade items — like sandwiches, wraps, salads and fruit bowls — that can be found around campus. It produces 60 to 70 items each day for this line alone.
On-Deck Deli, another restaurant on campus, also now has a specific gluten-free prep area, separate tools and a separate toaster to avoid cross-contamination.
In May, the UA as named fourth on a list of gluten-free-accommodating campuses in the U.S. by Udi's, which is America’s largest manufacturer of gluten-free food and has an active online community.
Celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people and is on the rise. Research has shown that the disease is four times more common now as it was 50 years ago. Another increasing medical problem is something doctors are calling “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”
Little is known about the condition other than that a person’s health improves on a gluten-free diet and gets worse if the patient goes back to gluten. The majority of people with celiac disease go undiagnosed.
Rich experienced symptoms for five years before being diagnosed. She’s been gluten-free for the two years since, and her health has drastically improved.
“It’s great. I’m not sick all the time anymore,” said Rich, a psychology major who will be graduating in June.
Although experts agree that there are medical needs for a gluten-free diet, because of the popularity of gluten-free foods some people just see it as a fad diet. However, doctors at the University of Chicago say it doesn’t make sense that someone would lose weight on a gluten-free diet.
These doctors also believe that for someone who doesn’t need to be on a gluten-free diet, it’s not healthier. Gluten-free foods often contain less fiber and are less likely to be fortified with vitamins.
Another obstacle facing people with gluten sensitivity is that many foods contain “hidden glutens.” Besides the obvious foods that contain wheat, barley or rye, many other foods have glutens that one wouldn’t expect to find.
“Gluten is found in almost all processed items, food or not,” said Susan Fulton, a co-owner of Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro in Tucson. “It can essentially be hidden in all food that isn’t fresh.”
Gourmet Girls, 5845 N. Oracle Road, is a sponsor of this weekend’s expo. It has been selling gluten-free baked goods at Tucson-area farmers markets for four years. Two years ago, Fulton and Chef Mary Steiger expanded their baked goods line into the first exclusively gluten-free restaurant in Tucson, offering breakfast, lunch and a full bakery. After the holidays, the restaurant will be expand into dinner hours, Fulton said.
Since gluten is so widely used in food processing, people with gluten sensitivity need to carefully read food labels and keep a list of other words that mean the same thing as gluten, Fulton said.
Another goal of the expo is to help educate health- care providers. Even though gluten sensitivity is more common, it’s still not a first thought for many doctors when presented with a patient’s symptoms.
Besides Gourmet Girls and Core, the newly opened CakeLab on East Fourth Street is the city’s only other strictly gluten-free restaurant, though many now have designated gluten-free areas and equipment.
Although most traditional restaurants are understanding, Rich occasionally experiences skepticism from servers when she tells them she’s gluten-free. Because she’s thin, sometimes servers react as though she’s eating that way to lose weight.
That perception is upsetting to Rich, who says it shows a lack of respect for people who are gluten-free for serious medical reasons.
Speakers for this weekend’s event include celebrity chef Haile Thomas, of the “Kids Can Cook” Web videos; Dr. Lucinda A. Harris, author of “Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff — Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity”; and Nina Spitzer, author of “Celiac Disease and School Children.”