It took eight years before Alice Bast, CEO of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, was diagnosed with celiac disease.
“Whether you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, everyone has a story,” she said, speaking to a group of attendees Sunday at the Central Pennsylvania Gluten-Free Expo at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.
Unfortunately for her, she said, the diagnosis came after the stillborn delivery of a full-term infant and three miscarriages. She suffered severe weight loss and debilitating physical and emotional strain.
“I would get treated for the symptom rather than finding the root cause,” she said. “It was finally the family vet, if you can believe it, who suggested maybe it was the grains I was eating that were causing the problems.”
When she was finally diagnosed, she went on a gluten-free diet and started to feel better, Bast said. She realized there were support groups around the country, but no one was raising awareness and advocating for a cure, so she set out to do that, founding the NFCA.
Bast was the keynote speaker for the expo. Filling a conference room, vendors and nutritionists promoted the gluten-free lifestyle while offering a world of foods and products catered to those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities.
Artisan breads, energy supplements, cupcakes and baking supplies were on hand from vendors throughout the state, and samples were readily at hand for the hundreds on the floor.
Bast advocated for the availability and affordability of gluten-free foods, saying “We have the right to make sure that when we go into the supermarket, we have gluten-free products right on our shelves.”
According to event coordinator Matt Bolich, grocery stores from around the county were on hand, including Wegmans, Weis Markets and Giant Food Stores — all of which offer gluten-free products and ingredients.
“In essence, this event is to educate people who have questions about celiac disease or being gluten free,” he said. “It’s also to give the ability to try products they wouldn’t ordinarily get to try.”
In its third year in the region, the expo brings together vendors from a wide area, he said. While many products can be found in stores, there may be a product from an outside vendor that can be ordered on the Internet, especially if it has a stable shelf life.
Those diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have become more prevalent, he said, and with a growing population, the expo gives them a chance to come together and discuss their issues.
“We’ve had people who brought kids along,” he said, “who say to us with tears in their eyes this is the first place their kids have gone where they can try everything and not have to worry.”
Helping promote the expo was the State College Celiac Support Group, which boasts a Facebook membership of more than 140.
Angie Wallace, who is a member of the group, acknowledged that the gluten-free population is growing as evidenced by growth on the Facebook page. The group offers discussion but will also do shopping tours of local groceries to show those recently diagnosed where to find gluten-free products.
Personally, she said, she manages her gluten sensitivity by eating a paleo-based diet, which consists mainly of meat, vegetables and fruit and excludes grains and dairy.
“The biggest difficulty for those with celiac disease comes when you have other food allergies on top of it,” she said. “It makes it more difficult to navigate what you can and can’t eat, and makes it especially hard for a kid.”