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St. Albert gets first gluten-free bakery

The Celiac Baker sells all the gluten-free baked treats someone with celiac disease could ever desire

As a person with celiac disease dining out, most of the time “you don’t get to feel normal,” said Amanda O’Donnell.

More times than she can count, O’Donnell has been served food containing gluten, despite repeated warnings to servers that her body can’t handle the protein found in wheat and some other grains. One bite of pasta or bread and she’s left exhausted with abdominal pain and “feeling like a walking corpse.”

“With your allergies, people kind of look down on you,” she said.

That’s no longer the case for St. Albertans with celiac disease who want to enjoy baked goods without fearing for their health.

The Celiac Baker opened in January at 2003 Tudor Glen Place with O’Donnell at the helm.

It’s the first gluten free bakery in St. Albert. Diners can enjoy all the treats that they would buy at a standard bakery, including cinnamon buns, cupcakes and cookies, and some more savoury items such as pierogies and buns – although right now the store focuses mostly on the sweet side of the bakery spectrum.

O’Donnell said most of the recipes come from her family, but she’s added her own creative flourishes.

“Our gingersnap recipe is a combination of both my grandparents’ gingersnaps,” she said. “People love a soft gingersnap, and my grandma had that. But my stepdad’s mom, she had a spicy gingersnap that was crispy. So I combined them into a cookie that’s soft but has that spice in it.”

She’s also hired baker friends from her time working in the industry, like manager Lisa Rizzi, who specializes in cupcakes and makes exotic flavours such as root beer and cola.

They store's most popular item, cinnamon buns, sell out every morning.

O’Donnell appreciates the “blunt” advice she gets from bakery staff who don’t have celiac disease. They can “try the product and tell me honestly if it tastes like cardboard,” she said.

Notorious for being dry and somewhat bland, gluten free baked goods have come a long way.

“A proper flour blend is what you need,” O’Donnell said. “A lot of the store-bought flours are not the way to go. You’ll either get a nutty flavor, or it'll be too dry or too wet, or it isn't consistent.”

In her quest to make gluten-free baked goods that can compete with their gluten-filled counterparts, she stumbled upon a Lacombe-based bakery that had the perfect flour and which now supplies O’Donnell’s bakery with a rice and tapioca-based mixture.

Also important for the bakery is that their food is affordable. Gluten-free foods can cost three or four times more than their gluten-containing counterparts. A "mystery box" at the bakery costs $25 and contains ten items. 

In people with celiac disease, gluten damages the tiny, hairlike projections called villi that line the small intestine. Once injured, the gut can’t absorb nutrients properly.

O’Donnell was diagnosed at 17.

“When I got diagnosed, I had no iron left in my system, no nutrients getting absorbed … I'm still, seven years later, dealing with the consequences of not getting diagnosed for 17 years,” she said.

“Chef Villi,” the bakery’s mascot, is a rubber duck that greets visitors from behind the front counter and reminds staff of the importance of taking care of customers’ dietary needs.

Apparently, the need is great in St. Albert.

“We didn't anticipate to be doing as well as we are,” she said. “We go home crying because we’re selling out … tears of joy.”

Food insecurity

Celiac disease is being detected earlier and faster, according to Dr. Diana Mager, a nutrition researcher at the University of Alberta who recently co-authored a food guide for children and youth with the autoimmune disease.

“A lot of that has to do with better diagnostic tools, from bloodwork that you can use for screening and then for, for diagnosis,” she said.

Gluten-free foods sometimes cost three or four times more than their gluten-containing counterparts, Mager said.

This poses a problem for families and people with celiac disease whose budgets are increasingly stretched thin.

“We're doing a cross-country survey looking at families’ challenges with being able to afford the diet,” she said. “What’s coming across very strongly is that many people experience food insecurity … sometimes parents have to compromise their own food intake to ensure their child can eat a nutritious gluten-free diet.”

Access is especially sparse in rural Alberta, Mager said, and many families have told Mager they would like the government to acknowledge the diet as a therapeutic expense worthy of a medical tax deduction.

“It is so good for consumers to have extra choices to offset eating the same thing over and over again,” she said. “[At gluten-free stores] you don't have to worry about contamination, because they're only selling gluten free containing foods … With celiac disease you have to change your whole way of life.”

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