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On the Job

Gluten free doesn’t mean flavor free

Bakery owner Natalie McEachern believes no kids should go without a birthday cake on their birthday, even if they can’t eat foods containing gluten.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Bakery owner Natalie McEachern believes no kids should go without a birthday cake on their birthday, even if they can’t eat foods containing gluten.

Gluten-free foods have come a long way, said Natalie McEachern, owner of Glutenus Minimus, a gourmet gluten-free bakery.

Gluten-free products, once only sought by people with celiac disease, have become a $4.2 billion market. McEachern, 32, who was diagnosed with celiac disease more than a decade ago, started the Belmont bakery six years after discovering that the recipes she created at home tasted better than the baked goods she could buy in a store.

How pervasive is gluten in our everyday food?

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Being gluten-free means having to religiously read food labels; not being able to go to some popular restaurants; no traditional birthday or wedding cakes, and on and on. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and other grains. It’s a big life change for someone if they find out that they have a gluten intolerance.

Why do gluten-free foods have a reputation for tasting like cardboard?

Gluten-free cookbooks, especially earlier ones, often called for obscure flours such as garbanzo bean flour, which might be excellent in hummus but not so great in cookies. When I first started exploring gluten-free cooking, I had to go to small local health food stores and special order sorghum or other difficult-to-find flours. Some of these had a strange after-taste that couldn’t be disguised, even by chocolate or peanut butter.

How is gluten-free baking different from traditional baking?

I really need to think through and experiment with recipes. With breads, for example, more binders need to be added, whether xanthan or guar gum. And it’s definitely a game of figuring out which flours create what textures. As far as cakes, muffins, and cookies go, you have to mix gently or batter comes out like a rock.

Why are gluten-free products so expensive?

Creating gluten-free products is very involved. For one, manufacturers have to be certified to carry certain gluten-free labels. Protecting against cross-contamination requires testing batches for gluten and allergens, using special equipment, and regular cleaning of dedicated facilities. All of these increase production costs.

Do you try to accommodate other dietary and allergy restrictions at your bakery?

For so many patrons, celiac disease and gluten intolerance is just the tip of the iceberg. I see people with multiple allergies, including corn, soy, dairy, egg, and nut, so I try to come up with desserts for all. We are a resource for parents with newly diagnosed children. I keep a box of tissues on the counter because it can be overwhelming. I believe no kid should go without a birthday cake on their birthday.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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