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Allergy-Friendly Foods Show Off

By Samantha Abernethy in Food on Apr 20, 2009 6:20PM

2009_04_16_thrive.jpg The Thrive Allergy Expo for individuals with allergies and celiac disease took place this weekend, showcasing allergy-friendly literature and products, informative speakers and delicious free samples. I have been eating gluten-free for almost two years now, so I checked out the event on Saturday on behalf of my fellow Chicagoistas.

For those who aren't familiar, "gluten-free" is not some type of fancy food trend. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats. Many people have to eliminate these items from their diet because they have celiac disease or a wheat/gluten allergy or intolerance. Doctors recommend the diet for a number of other reasons, too. And some people simply just feel better if they don't eat it. There is no cure, no pill, no simple fix, just the need to follow a gluten-free diet.

The Expo was like Taste of Chicago for people with food allergies. The exhibitors were lined up into neat rows in the intimidatingly enormous McCormick Place. A cooking stage was set up at the far end, where presenters demonstrated tactics for cooking and baking allergy-free foods. On either side of the stage, there were two areas for presentations from exhibitors and from non-profit organizations like the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. McCormick Place also introduced a new dining option to bring allergy-friendly eating to the convention center. The Care Free Café creates meals without the top eight food allergens--dairy, egg, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

I was surprised to not see Rose's Wheat-Free Bakery at the event. Their allergy-friendly cafĂ© on Central Street in Evanston serves up pastries, breads and pizzas — all gluten-free — and many others free of sugar, dairy or egg. However, Deerfields Bakery was also there, showing off their gluten-free products, which included a truly convincing baguette. One major highlight was Merchant du Vin, showcasing Green's, their phenomenal gluten-free Belgian-style ales and cider.

Some vendors, like Toro, handed out recipes with their baking mixes and products, and there were tons of samples to be had. After trying Toro's incredibly moist chocolate-chip cookies, after so many years of cardboard cookies, it is great to find out the secret ingredient is Jell-O pudding mix. Jules Shepard, creator of Nearly Normal Cooking mixes and cookbook, demonstrated some of her baking tricks on the cooking stage, too. Applegate Farms showed off their organic gluten-free hot dogs, on warm, steamed gluten-free buns. That was my favorite sample of the whole event, but that might be because they were one of the few savory samples available.

Products for individuals with nut allergies were also on display, too. There were chocolates and meals, but by far the cutest product, though, was Rock'O, a Portuguese water dog that is a service dog to a young girl with severe allergies. He is trained to sniff peanuts the way bomb-sniffing dogs are trained.

More important than the products, though, was the camaraderie. Some people tend to become more introverted after they discover that they have a food allergy, especially if it is life-threatening. Parents of children with allergies often struggle with the idea of having to tell their children "no" to so many things. The internet has helped to connect people with similar problems, regardless of geographic location, but this event gave everyone the opportunity to be part of a face-to-face community, swapping advice and recipes and product knowledge. That is worth much more than a loaf of bread.

Check out the vendor list on Thrive's website. Many of the products are available at Whole Foods, Fruitful Yield stores (Berwyn, Aurora, Elmhurst and Elgin), and GoodDay Gluten Free (Lake Forest).