Walking into the new FUK Flour bakery inside the Hodge Podge Shoppe in Manotick, hungry customers can feast their eyes on freshly made fudge, cupcakes, date squares and brownies.
Savoury items like mini quiches and lunch-time wraps are also available, and nutty, dense breads line the top of the counter.
To taste it, you would never guess the food is all completely gluten-free.
Owner and Manotick resident Darren Potvin set up shop inside the novelty store on Tighe Street in August, opening what he calls the first 100 per cent gluten free bakery in Ottawa that also doubles as a resource centre for people dealing with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease.
Gluten is a protein found in most wheat, barley and rye and is used frequently as a filler in processed food.
More than 330,000 people in Canada have Celiac disease, which is a severe food allergy to gluten that can cause major pain and chronic intestinal problems. Canadians are also increasingly being diagnosed as gluten intolerant which can produce similar symptoms depending on severity.
The only cure at the moment is to eat gluten-free – something the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation said can cost families up to 2.5 times more money. Limited access to gluten-free foods can also prevent families and individuals from traveling, dining out and enjoying regular social activities without added cost and inconvenience, the foundation said.
The 40-year-old FUK Flour baker has suffered severe gluten intolerance since he was 18, and lived daily with painful digestive problems that doctors told him were the result of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He had a low immune system and was constantly catching colds, and he had no energy. He lived on antacids.
Without any formal diagnosis, he was 32 when he finally cracked the case: he saw a naturopathic doctor who convinced him give up gluten for a week, and he suddenly became a whole new person.
“My symptoms after the second day had stopped. After the fourth day, my partner said ‘you’re not cranky anymore, and you look healthier,’” Potvin said.
He was sleeping better and he had more energy. In one week, he lost 14 pounds, he said. Going back to the nutritionist, she suggested he add a glutinous meal back into his diet to test the results.
“Of course, being Italian, I chose pasta,” Potvin said. Within 25 minutes, he said he was sick to his stomach and had a headache.
After that, Potvin was convinced and has spent the last eight years researching everything he can about the effects of gluten.
About four years ago he bought the domain name GlutenfreeOttawa.ca and several others for locations across the country. But only in the past year has he found the time to begin populating the site with his research and links to studies and information across the world.
Since it launched in February, already his site has more than 5,000 hits per month.
This enthusiasm was the impetus to begin his FUK (For Ur Knowledge) Flour bakery and resource centre.
“There’s no place you can come and get the knowledge and learn,” Potvin said.
While his bakery is open to any customer, he caters specifically to gluten intolerant and celiac customers. He welcomes them and invites them to take copies of his information sheets which are laid out in the corner of his tiny shop.
He also shows them around his shelf of imported gluten-free goodies, including some examples of naturally gluten-free options that are available everywhere, such as VH soy sauce. The shelf also stocks fun kids’ breakfast cereals and Canadian company Holy Crap’s power breakfast mixes.
He provides this service, he said, because he doesn’t want people to go through the steep learning curve he had to.
“It was like the end of the world for me. Grocery shopping went from 30 minutes to three hours. It was hellish, having to read every ingredient,” he said. “You start not eating, because you’re afraid of getting sick.”
He makes sure to bake entirely gluten free, because he’s painfully aware that even a tiny morsel of gluten product can make a person with a severe intolerance sick for days.
But he is also trying to drive home his belief that gluten-free products sold in regular bakeries are not safe for people with severe intolerances, because the gluten can actually be airborne.
“Most people aren’t aware of the cross-contamination issues,” he said.
He paints a picture of a commercial kitchen baking gluten products next to gluten-free products.
“If you throw a handful of flour in the air, it’s like dust. It settles onto everything,” he said.
Potvin plans to soon connect all of his online resources into a nation-wide gluten-free resource. In the meantime, he encourages Ottawa residents to come visit him in person.
“I want people to come to me so people can get the knowledge they need,” he said.