Imagine cutting wheat out of the everyday American diet. No burgers, pizza, beer, flour tortillas or even an all-American peanut butter and jelly sandwich. All of these items contain gluten, a wheat protein that for some people has been linked to symptoms such as stomach cramping, fatigue, bloating, weight gain and depression.
As a result, people across the nation, including celebrities such as Gwenyth Paltrow, Keith Olbermann and Chelsea Clinton, have chosen to live a gluten-free lifestyle, and local business owners say the valley's demand for gluten-free products has risen as well.
"People have been eating wheat because it's easy to grow and can be grown in a lot of different climates, but I don't know that it's naturally good for us," said Colleen Teevin, owner of the Cloverstone Gluten-Free Bakery in Hailey.
Teevin herself discovered her gluten sensitivity nearly 10 years ago, when she started suffering from vertigo, "fuzzy brain" and exhaustion, common symptoms of gluten sensitivity. She said she cut all gluten out of her diet and felt better within a week.
Teevin's story is not unusual. According to the National Celiac Sprue Association, an organization dedicated to helping those with intolerance to gluten, nearly one in 133 people have celiac sprue, a disease in which gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction that causes the body to damage its own small intestine.
Nearly one in 20 people have a form of gluten sensitivity, which is less severe but can still cause uncomfortable symptoms in those with the condition.
Teevin said her diagnosis hit her especially hard, as she was a professional baker and couldn't even touch the wheat flour at her old job without experiencing symptoms.
"I knew if I was ever going to bake again, I would have to go gluten-free," she said.
Since January, she's offered her muffins, cookies and other baked goods in local stores and coffeehouses. Her goal, she said, is to make gluten-free products that people aren't afraid to try.
"In the past, gluten-free has meant taste-free," she said. "There's still some apprehension, but the more well-made products that are available, the more people will be willing to try it."
Pam Colesworthy, owner of Tranquility Tea House in Ketchum, said she began selling gluten-free items because she has friends who struggle with celiac disease.
"I knew that for them, baked goods are a challenge, and even meals can be a challenge," she said.
Colesworthy admitted that with the myriad of celebrities pushing the gluten-free lifestyle, she thought it was just another trendy diet—like the Atkins diet or the grapefruit diet of yore.
"In the beginning I thought it was somewhat faddish," she said. "Now, I believe it's a legitimately growing market. Mass-produced wheat today is a different grain than the grain of 100 years ago. I don't know that our bodies can really tolerate it."
A feature in the Wall Street Journal last year corroborates Colesworthy's statement. Joseph A. Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told the Journal that agricultural changes to wheat, including specialized breeding and genetic modification, have boosted the protein content of wheat. As a result, people as old as 70 who have eaten gluten all their lives have suddenly developed intolerances or even celiac disease.
Jim Funk, owner of Despo's Mexican restaurant in Ketchum, said he's seen an increase in demand for gluten-free items over the years that he's been in business. Funk said roughly 95 percent of his menu items can be made gluten-free with few, if any, modifications.
"A lot of people ask, and when it's pointed out, they realize that a lot of it is safe for them to consume," he said.
Funk said most of his customers who ask for gluten-free items do have an allergy or sensitivity, but Atkinsons' Markets co-owner Chip Atkinson said he's seen growth in non-sensitive purchasers of gluten-free items.
"You have the true customer who literally has issues, whatever disease that they have, that they are diagnosed," he said. "But there's definitely a segment that is in an experimental stage. They read it's good for you, and they experiment with it."
That experimentation has been partly responsible for an explosion of gluten-free items, with more than 27,000 food and beverage products launched with the gluten-free claim between 2006 and 2010, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database.
One of the dangers of experimenting with a gluten-free diet without a diagnosis, however, is the potential for covering up a serious medical condition.
Becky McCarver, nutritionist with St. Luke's Wood River, said undiagnosed celiac sprue patients who follow a gluten-free diet could think they are solving the problem when really other issues may still exist. The American Dietic Association reported in 2010 that those with undiagnosed celiac disease are still at risk for thyroid disease, irritable bowel syndrome and fertility issues.
In addition, those without celiac disease who go on a gluten-free diet may find it harder to lose weight and may develop nutritional deficiencies.
Despite these caveats, locals say the demand for gluten-free food items could be here to stay.
"Is it like the cupcake fad [of a few years ago]?" Teevin said. "I don't think so. People are realizing they feel better when they eliminate certain grains from their diet."
Shoppers can find gluten-free products at the following stores, coffeehouses and restaurants:
Atkinsons'—baked goods, grocery.
Albertsons—general grocery items.
Cristina's—gluten-free options for bread and desserts.
Despo's—gluten-free Mexican food, including tortillas, enchilada sauce and other items.
Glow—all food is vegan, raw, and dairy-, wheat-, soy- and corn-free as well as organic.
Hailey Coffee Co.—baked goods and some menu items.
Java—baked goods and some menu items.
Main Street Market—baked goods and general grocery items such as pasta and cookies.
Perry's—pancakes, bread, tortillas and salads.
Smoky Mountain Pizza—pizza crust and some other menu items.
Starbucks—baked goods and some menu items.