My husband and I are "gastric pains," which might be why we don't get many dinner invitations. I won't eat beef, poultry and most fish. He is allergic to milk and can't tolerate wheat gluten, found in most breads, cereals, pastas and processed foods.
"What on earth do you people eat?" friends ask.
(At left is Peggy Wagener, publisher of "Living Without" magazine, an important resource for those with food allergies and sensitivities. )
It takes some work, but we have plenty of choices if we cook our own food, bring gluten- and dairy-free dishes to dinner engagements (so we don't burden the host) and stay tethered to Whole Foods, one of the only grocery stores in the nation with a dedicated gluten-free bakery.
Even restaurants, once a nightmare on food sensitivities, are starting to tempt us, thanks to an inevitable trend: Foodies such as chefs and bakers are among those suffering from food allergies and intolerances.
Ten years ago, few people had ever heard of celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects digestion and is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Common allergens were hidden on food-label ingredient lists, while restaurants and schools didn't accommodate those with special diets.
But in the last decade, the number of Americans with food allergies has more than doubled from an estimated 5 million to 12 million, said Peggy Wagener, publisher of Living Without Magazine, a lifeline for people with allergies and food or chemical sensitivities. More than 3 million Americans are thought to be affected by celiac, but 97 percent are still undiagnosed.
"Ten years ago most food manufacturers didn't want to talk to me," said Wagener, whose publication was recently sold to a larger publisher and will relaunch in late-March. "There was no 'market' for food allergies and sensitivities."
That has changed dramatically.
"Big companies like Kraft and Kellogg's are beginning to take this market seriously," she said.
Still, people such as Chicago pastry chef Betty Alper and her family are the ones making inroads at a grass-roots level. Alper's celiac diagnosis nearly ruined her dream of opening a vegan bakery. Instead, she now co-owns The Balanced Kitchen, a vegan and gluten-free oasis in Lincoln Village, where chef Zachary Bello can deftly accommodate any allergy thrown at him.
But the restaurant, which opened in January, is just the latest entry in the market.
Whole Foods created a gluten-free bakehouse in 2004 after a bakery team member learned he had celiac disease.
Swirlz Cupcakes in Chicago, where one of the owners is celiac, offers a different kind of gluten-free cupcake each day.
Bistro 110 chef Dominique Tougne has two children with food allergies and strives to accommodate any dietary restriction. He estimates that five years ago, he received one special diet request a month. Now he gets at least one per day and often 5 to 10.
After several of Luciano Libereri's seven children were diagnosed with celiac, the menu at his restaurant, DaLuciano's in River Grove, expanded to include gluten-free pasta, bread and even fried calamari.
Rose O'Carroll, who began baking wheat-free bread for her gluten-intolerant family members, recently opened Rose's Wheatfree Bakery. The Evanston cafe serves foods prepared without gluten, peanuts, trans fats and corn syrup. Casein-free (or dairy-free) items are available, and organic ingredients are used whenever possible.
Wagener, who is celiac and also battling a second diagnosis of cancer, started Living Without in part as a resource for herself; she wanted good gluten-free food, and in 1998 the pickings were slim. Today she is so heartened by growing awareness and availability of gluten-free food that she wonders if she should change the magazine's name to eliminate the negative connotation.
"I no longer feel deprived or that I'm 'living without,'" she said.
But the name doesn't just mean sacrificing certain foods. It means living without abdominal bloating, vomiting, stomach pain, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue and other symptoms caused by celiac and allergies or sensitivities to food and chemicals.
In fact, Living Without can be a really great thing.