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9:50 AM Tue, Dec. 18th

Group raises awareness about gluten-free dining, grocery options

If you'd have asked her about gluten-free food in the tri-city a few years ago, Diane Jacobs would have scoffed. Today she beams.

"There are a lot of options at restaurants and stores that weren't there before," said Jacobs, a Williamson Valley resident and member of Prescott Area Celiac and Gluten Free Support. "It's really come a long way - not just in terms of awareness, but availability, too."

The group, which began late last year, meets at 12:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of the month in the Elsea Room of the Prescott Public Library, 215 E. Goodwin St. They meet to talk, network and exchange information about living a gluten-free lifestyle in the area.

There are about a dozen members, and it's free to attend.

May, incidentally, is both National Celiac Awareness Month and the first Arizona Celiac Awareness Month.

"That kind of awareness is key," Jacobs said. "I think that's part of why we've come so far here."

They've got an informal list of businesses that cater to gluten-free diets, and what used to be a handful of area locations has swelled to more than a dozen grocery stories and a couple dozen restaurants.

Malevolent grain Gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, is in a preponderance of foods: sandwiches, pizza, pasta, cake, cookies and anything with flour.

People with celiac disease have an autoimmune response to gluten that causes them abdominal pain, nausea and, in severe cases, vomiting and diarrhea. In the long term, intestinal damage from celiac disease can prohibit the absorption of some nutrients.

"It's worse with stress, I can tell you that," said Jacobs, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2002, a few years after she moved to the area. "It's kind of a sleeping dog, and it's a completely different animal than something like a food allergy."

Celiac disease was once thought a rare condition, but, during the last decade, the number of diagnoses have spiked. Figures and studies vary, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services puts the rate at one in 133. A conversational rate of one percent is ubiquitous on the Internet.

In addition to sharing information, members of Prescott Area Celiac and Gluten-Free Support sometimes host manufacturers from around Arizona, particularly Phoenix, Jacobs said.

"We'll get samples and other goodies, and a lot of the products end up on the shelves around town," she said, adding some group members without Celiac disease are either gluten sensitive or choose not to eat food with gluten.

Next month's meeting on June 19 features a discussion about fiber.

"A lot of the typical gluten-free food is very high-carby, very starchy, low-fiber, and not very nutritious," Jacobs said. "We're going to talk about the benefits of adding more fiber to our diets."

One option is chia seeds.

"Yes, like a Chia Pet," Jacobs said. "The seeds can be made into a wonderful high-protein flour."

Visit Jacobs' website and blog, www.celiacdiseaseinfo.org and glutenfreefoodieheaven.blogspot.com, to read more about celiac disease.