Local bakers and restaurants are developing new lines of products to accommodate a growing audience.

Diagnosed nine years ago with sensitivity to gluten, Ginnie Baer had to give up all foods involving bread, pizza dough and pasta.

Finding restaurants that carried safe products wasn't easy.

"It was tricky, definitely," she said. "When you would ask the wait staff, 'Is there gluten in it?' they'd say, 'What are you talking about?'"

Such awkward encounters are becoming less frequent for Baer and countless others who suffer from sensitivities to gluten.

Local bakers and restaurants are developing new lines of gluten-free products to accommodate a growing audience.

Gluten, a tenacious protein commonly found in wheat flour, is responsible for the elasticity and chewiness of some foods and is widely known as the glue that holds things together and keeps air in.

Shawnee Hills Bakery north of Dublin recently started carrying products from Gluten Free You and Me, whose founder, Judee DeJaco, was diagnosed with celiac disease in the early 1990s. Those with the affliction can't digest protein found in wheat, barley or rye, which damages part of the small intestine and can disrupt the absorption of nutrients.

The fan of pasta, sweets and dessert was forced to overhaul her diet.

"I ate lots of regular food and changing to a diet like that was so different," she said. "It takes about a year to come to terms (with it)."

DeJaco started baking as a hobby and came up with gluten-free recipes she thought were good enough to sell. After vending at the Worthington Farmers Market, she found a partner at the Shawnee Hills Bakery, which
carries her fresh products on Mondays only. She said she is working with bakery owner Carol Kender to extend the lineup to more days during the week.

Some chefs, such as Del Sroufe of Wellness Foods Forum in Worthington, said gluten-free recipes pose their challenges.

"Most of the time, there's more of a texture difference than a taste difference," Sroufe said. "It's not as chewy. If you've ever had gluten-free bagels, it doesn't work."

Sunny McDonald-Sargent, who runs the gluten-free department at the Raisin Rack, said products have improved immensely. The Westerville store has one of the largest selections of gluten-free goods in the state - 106 running shelf feet and 16 doors of frozen products -- offering everything from breakfast foods to midnight snacks, she said.

"When I started in this business 22 years ago, there were very few choices," she said. "They pretty much tasted like cardboard. Now you can't even tell they're gluten-free."

Mary Kay Sharrett, a registered dietician for Nationwide Children's Hospital, said more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease because of better testing methods. Many restaurants, both nationally and locally, have recognized the trend and adjusted their menus.

"I have to say, within the last year, things have changed in that manner," said Sharrett, also a consultant to the Gluten-Free Gang of Central Ohio, a support group based at the hospital. "We have several bakeries in the Columbus area where we didn't used to have much at all."

Gluten sensitivities can vary from mild to severe. Jenny Scheinbach, owner of Pattycake Vegan Bakery in Clintonville, said that while she makes gluten-free products, her store is not technically gluten-free because her equipment, including ovens, comes into contact with gluten. Still, sales of gluten-free products have grown to about 5 percent since she founded the store in 2005.

"It's not huge, but 5 percent is still something," she said, adding that some gluten free desserts -- truffles, cheesecakes, Buckeye bars and such -- are available daily but cakes must be special-ordered.