By now you've surely heard about gluten; the substance that seems to be blacklisted from a lot of diets these days. So what is this curious substance and why are so many people avoiding it? Little Rock experts explain...

The Lowdown on Gluten

“Gluten refers to a family of proteins that are found in cereals,” says Dr. Troy Gibbons, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine. “Wheat, barley and rye are the cereals that have the offending proteins. Some of these proteins can trigger an abnormal immune response in people.”

The term “allergy” is inaccurate, according to pharmacist Linda Bortell, owner of Green Earth Pharmacy & Wellness Center. “The term is pretty misused in the context of foods. True allergies elicit symptoms such as swelling of the mouth and lips, breaking out in allergic rashes, blood pressure dropping, being unable to breathe,” she says. “When we talk about food and someone unable to digest it, or their body unable to process it, the correct term is ‘intolerance.’ Someone who cannot digest gluten is gluten intolerant. If someone says they are allergic to a food that should mean if they consume it, they could end up immediately in the hospital – like peanut allergies.”

According to Gibbons, the physical reaction to the intolerance varies greatly from person to person. “Influencing factors can include how big the exposure is and for how long the exposure has been going on,” he explains. But “the traditional symptoms of diarrhea and a bloated stomach have now been recognized as really only the tip of the iceberg,” Gibbons says. “We now know that there are many subtle symptoms that may involve several parts of the body such as recurrent abdominal pains, skin rashes, joint pains, anemia and even growth failure and some neurological or nervous system symptoms.”

“It’s just like lactose intolerance,” Bortell said. “Some people were born [without the ability] to make the right enzymes to digest the gluten, others make less and less as we age. Others develop an autoimmune disease called celiac disease, which is caused when one of the components of gluten reacts to the intestine tissue and causes the body to attack itself,” she said.

Going Gluten-Free

Paula Dempsey, owner of the gluten-free establishment Dempsey Bakery, knows first-hand the challenges of food allergies. All the adults in her family, as well as her five grandchildren, follow gluten-free diets.

Given the number and wide variety of things that contain gluten, eliminating it from daily life might seem impossible, but it’s not. It’s just harder, says Dempsey. Although there is no pill or quick fix, she says families simply have to rely on home cooked meals made with the right ingredients. The difficulty is in the lifestyle adjustment, as some families rely on fast food and restaurants for nightly meals. Learning to cook your own food in a new, more careful way is the hardest part, she says.

“So many people eat on the run and out of a box. But if you stay away from sauces and packaged seasonings and cook pure, it’s not too difficult.” “This style of [preparing food] has contributed so much to my family’s health that I had to pursue the bakery,” she says. “We use no preservatives in our baking and also have eliminated so many other food groups that cause people problems. This will help people just learning and starting a food sensitivity diet of any kind.”

Most grocery stores and many restaurants in central Arkansas have gluten-free products and menu items, but Dempsey’s hope is that more establishments will begin making accommodations for people with food allergies or intolerances. She plans to host classes for restaurants and servers to educate them about food allergies and cross contamination.

Hide & Seek

One of the biggest challenges of gluten intolerance is that it can be found in some very surprising places. It’s in some soaps and shampoos, almond paste, and even Twizzlers candy. “Certain toothpastes, lip gloss, even envelope gum may contain gluten,” notes Gibbons.

It can also be found in prescription drugs and some supplements, Bortell says. “It’s a cheap filler for the ‘discount’ supplement manufacturers like the kinds you find at wholesale clubs and bargain chain stores. Weight loss products, protein bars and drinks that tout extra protein may also contain added gluten.”

“While families are usually very aware of what their child can or cannot eat, watch for those unknown exposures,” Gibbons says. “These can occur through school meals, eating out and visiting relatives who may not understand why your child cannot have ‘fun’ foods. Also, be prepared for the adolescent child who will likely rebel against a diet so different from all their friends, and who may not feel sick immediately on exposure. Parents should sit down with their child and clearly explain why this diet is so important for his or her health.”

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Shop Local: Gluten-free Foods

We surveyed our Facebook fans and readers to see where they buy gluten-free goodies. We’re sure there are more, but here are some recommendations. See something we missed? Share it with our readers on

Grocery Stores

  • Anne’s Health Food Store
  • Drug Emporium
  • Fresh Market
  • Kroger
  • Whole Foods Market


  • American Pie Pizza
  • Bone Fish Grill
  • Boston’s
  • Café Bossa Nova
  • Izzy’s
  • Pei Wei
  • P.F. Chang’s
  • Outback Steakhouse
  • 4Square Cafe
  • Dempsey Bakery
  • The House