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For some, a common protein is toxic

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CRYSTAL LAKE – Kim Kirchhoff is in severe pain soon after eating a food that contains gluten.

If the common protein is present in Kirchhoff’s lunch, for example, her immune system has an intense reaction and begins to attack the tissue in her small intestine.

Today, the 30-year-old Crystal Lake resident understands what is happening to her. She knows that she is among the 1-in-133 people worldwide who suffer from celiac disease – a digestive disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the way the body absorbs nutrients from food.

Two months ago, however, Kirchhoff just knew she didn’t feel good.

“I had severe stomach pain, bloating, and I was always tired,” she said. “I had a biopsy and suspected I had an ulcer.”

Her doctor suggested a test for celiac disease.

When the results came back, the doctor’s suspicions were confirmed. Kirchhoff’s body could not tolerate the protein compound gluten.

Typically found in wheat, barley and rye products, gluten is the ingredient that helps make doughs elastic and gives pizza crusts and bagels a dense, chewy texture.

It also is used as a stabilizing agent in items such as ice cream and ketchup. And, although gluten is found mainly in foods, it also is an ingredient in some medicines, vitamins and even lip balms.

The diagnosis turned out to be a relief for Kirchhoff.

“After I started to experiment with gluten-free meals, all of the other side effects I was having, and just didn’t recognize were symptoms, got better,” she said. “I had muscle and joint pains and headaches and migraines, and I just attributed them to getting older.”

Any diagnosis with the word “disease” in it sounds scary, but treatment for gluten intolerance is fairly simple.

To stay healthy, Kirchhoff must avoid foods and other products that contain gluten. Fortunately for her, there are more options these days for those dealing with celiac disease.

Originally thought to be a rare childhood syndrome, celiac disease now is considered a common genetic disorder. Today, more than 2 million people in the United States are considered “celiacs,” according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Many more are suspected.

The increase in diagnosis of the disease can be seen reflected in more than just the relieved faces of the afflicted. The results are displayed prominently in restaurants and supermarkets all over the country.

Market research firm Packaged Facts estimates that the U.S. market for gluten-free foods and beverages has skyrocketed over the past 10 years to $2.6 billion in 2010.

It was just less than $1 billion in 2006, according to a Packaged Facts study released in February.

“While growth rates will slow over the next five years ... U.S. sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will exceed $5 billion by 2015,” the report said.

Locally, both Nick’s Pizza & Pub on Pyott Road in Crystal Lake and Julie Ann’s Frozen Custard on Northwest Highway offer gluten-free menu items. In Woodstock, the Public House on Main Street has gluten-free fare, too.

“We go through three to four cases of the gluten-free pizza crust in an average week,” said Scott Jewitt, operating partner for Nick’s Pizza & Pub.

That translates to about 96 pies, or about 2 percent of the pizzas that Nick’s sells in a week. The restaurant has been offering the gluten-free pizzas for about two years and prepares them on separate surfaces from the regular pizzas to prevent contamination, Jewitt said.

Linda Anderson, owner of Julie Ann’s, said she started offering gluten-free ice cream cones in September last year. She said she brought in the specialty cones because she has a friend who has celiac disease, so she understood it was sometimes hard to find ice cream shops with food that was safe to eat.

Anderson said that although she is not gluten intolerant, she also tries to avoid gluten for health reasons.

September marked Kirchhoff’s first attempts at gluten-free grocery shopping.

“I spent a lot of time in the fresh produce area and the gluten-free area in the Crystal Lake Jewel,” she said. “I was happy, some of those comforts you think you might miss, like cookies, they have them there.”

Kirchhoff also went to Trader Joe’s in Algonquin. There, she said, employees offered her a four-page list filled front to back with gluten-free items.

“That was a little overwhelming,” Kirchoff said with a laugh. “They suggested I take the list home and highlight the items I might be interested in.”

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