HOUGHTON - When Naomi Haycock noticed her problematic skin condition was improving less than 10 days after she stopped consuming gluten products, she knew her diet was about to change permanently.
"My skin is 90 percent better than it was," said Haycock, of Chassell. "This was a strong indication that gluten is a problem."
Haycock's recent discovery is what lured her to the Gluten-Free Recipe Exchange meeting at the Portage Lake District Library in Houghton Monday evening. The meetings, held from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. the third Monday of each month, were organized by and for individuals who are interested in or required to follow a gluten-free diet. Each month features a different type of food - December's theme was pies and desserts - and participants are welcome to bring their favorite gluten-free dish and share their recipes.
Brothers Noah Bach, 9, in red, and Caleb Bach, 6, of Hubbell, sample some of the desserts at the Gluten-Free Recipe Exchange meeting recently. Noah helped his mother, Jen Bach, bake the chocolate angel pie they brought to share at the session. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Kelly Fosness)
"We started it in September and our first meeting at the library had between 30 and 40 people," program co-organizer Amy Keranen said. "We don't consider ourselves a support group. We want to focus on the good part - the food. So it's an opportunity for people to share recipes and ideas."
Gluten-free eating, Keranen said, requires the avoidance of all wheat, rye, barley and oats. She said the genetic disorder celiac disease and other conditions are treated by following a gluten-free diet.
"The biggest challenge is coming up with a replacement for what you used to eat," she said, listing corn starch, rice, tapioca and sorghum flours as the replacement ingredients she's been using since her family went gluten-free in 1996. "They're becoming more locally available; however, the ingredients are several times the cost of wheat ingredients."
Depending on the individual, Keranen said typical symptoms gluten-intolerant people may experience are digestive problems, body aches, skin rashes and fatigue.
Haycock said her symptoms likely started as far back as July when she was experiencing digestive upsets. In November, her skin started to break out.
"My skin on my hands and part of my neck had started to look like alligator skin - inflamed, itchy, red and flaky," she said. "It was spreading so I had to do something."
In discussing her condition with others, Haycock learned gluten could be the underlying problem causing her skin irritation.
"I didn't want to think about it," she said. "I'm a Finlander. I could live on bread."
Eva Niemela, who coordinates the gluten-free exchange program with Keranen, said her 17-year-old daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease in March; however, she's been avoiding wheat for years. And since her daughter's diagnosis, Niemela has gone completely gluten-free.
"It was hard at first but now I'm past the challenge," she said. "I can say no to the gluten stuff."
During the meetings, participants are encouraged to share stories, ask questions and identify different brands of ingredients or reveal helpful tips that have proven successful for them. After discussion, participants sample the food items while visiting with each other.
Jen Bach, of Hubbell, who brought along a chocolate angel pie to share, said she's been gluten-free for three years for a number of health reasons.
"It cleared up my eczema," she said. "We also have a lot of digestive diseases in the family. We're healthier without it."
While a gluten-free diet is new to Haycock, she said she's looking forward to upcoming meetings to learn more recipes and listen to others.
"It's helpful to hear other people who have similar issues," she said. "You know you're not the only one out there."
PLDL Program Director Chris Alquist agreed.
"So many of the participants have said they're looking for something because they didn't know where else to turn," she said. "They share family stories, tips, what works, what doesn't work and the food is always good."
The Gluten-Free Recipe Exchange program is free and open to the public. For more information, call 906-281-5216 or the library at 906-482-4750.