By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer Published Mar 08, 2012 at 9:04 AM

Pasta. Pizza. Pretzels. Crackers. Pancakes. Beer.

For most Americans, these items are dietary staples. But, for consumers with celiac disease, these items can stimulate an autoimmune response resulting in inflammation, discomfort and nutritional deficiency.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, nearly 21 million people have celiac disease or some form of sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in all foods and products containing wheat, barley and rye. The disease affects as many as three million Americans, and the only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.

So, it should come as no surprise that the market and demand for gluten-free foods and beverages in the United States has grown to exceed $6 billion in sales, according to data provided by SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the Natural Products Industry. Other experts predict a 10 percent compound annual growth rate in the category.

Milwaukee has been relatively blessed with options for gluten-free dining and shopping. In March of 2000, Linda and John Kramer opened The Gluten-Free Trading Co. at 3116 S. Chase St. The store, which carries only gluten-free products, revolutionized the way gluten-intolerant consumers approached a trip to the grocery store.

The Kramers have since added another location in Pewaukee, a complement to Molly's Gluten-Free Bakery, a virtual paradise for gluten-free customers who thought they would never again be able to enjoy another cookie or cupcake. Even stores like Outpost Natural Food Coop and Whole Foods cater to the gluten-free market with select product offerings.

But, the marketplace in Racine County hasn't been quite so friendly for gluten-free consumers. Although most area grocery stores carry some gluten-free products, they often provide a very limited selection, making it difficult for customers to purchase all of their grocery items in one trip.

Joe Greene, executive director of Careers Industries, became intimately aware of how difficult it was to find a good selection of gluten-free items when his wife was diagnosed with celiac disease eight years ago after struggling with various health issues.

"She started eating gluten free and in a few short weeks felt much better," Greene recollects. "Finally she had genetic testing done and it confirmed that both of her parents carried that gene and she inherited it from both of them. Since that time, we have grown to live quite well gluten free."

But, one of the pieces that was missing in the Greene's new gluten-free lifestyle was a store in Racine that carried a solid selection of gluten-free products. This need, as well as a drive to create a new revenue stream to support Careers Industries programs, prompted Greene to hatch plans to open Greater Grain Gluten-Free Goods, Racine's first store to offer primarily gluten-free foods.

Greater Grain welcomed over 200 customers to their grand opening on March 1 at 4811 Washington Ave. in the northwest corner of Career Industries headquarters' new location at Westgate Square.

"Any time there is a store, bakery or restaurant that offers gluten-free options, it is a step in the right direction. To have a place like Greater Grains or the GF Trading Company that is specifically gluten-free – it takes the guess work out of label reading, especially for newbies," explains Sarah Ann Nielson, author of the Celiac in the City blog, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2008. "They can go into the store and not have to worry as much about the long process of reading labels."

Sarah cautions that celiacs can't take anything for granted, but that stores like Greater Grain make the work easier. "I still say check labels every single time – just this past week we found out that M&M's packages could now say 'contains wheat,' even the regular go-to flavors – so you have to be careful. But it's a great feeling to have a place in the community that is doing the ordering for you ... to walk into a store knowing you can have anything from the shelves ... it's such a a relief!"

In addition to serving the growing local demand for more gluten-free, organic, and natural food offerings, Greater Grain will provide job training and employment for persons with disabilities, extending Careers Industries' mission to contribute to the well-being of the broader community and economy through the work and volunteer service their participants perform for area businesses and non-profit organizations.

"We think that Greater Grain purchases will be good for the body and good for the soul as store profits will be an additional source of revenue that helps us continue to enhance the lives of persons with disabilities," says Greene. "The local business community and people of Racine have been such wonderful supporters of ours for 40 years, so we're excited to offer this store as a community resource for customers and a means of support for our mission."

Greater Grain is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, as well as a 10 percent off coupon good on a purchase of $30 or more, visit the website.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer

Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.

Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon. 

Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.