Making Celiac Awareness Pop

Gluten-free Popcorn Company Spreads Education as It Builds Sales

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What started as a food craving is now fueling a startup business that's not just selling gluten-free popcorn, it's working to raise awareness of an often-undiagnosed illness—celiac disease—with an eye toward achieving a cure.

L&J Popcorn offers gluten-free popcorn in three flavors—kettle, caramel and cheddar—in bags or tins. It's available online and through some Chicago-area food stores.

Debbie Gordon, chief popcorn officer and founder of the Northbrook, Ill.-based company, says she initially wanted to create the business because her daughter, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2002, was frustrated at not being able to find popcorn that was certified as gluten-free. "She's a huge fan of specialty popcorn," Gordon says. "She wanted people with celiac to be able to buy popcorn with confidence."

At the same time, L&J is working to raise awareness of celiac disease as well as funds to help find a cure. It donates a portion of its profits to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, which Gordon says is the premier center for celiac disease treatment, education and research. Its mission is to raise awareness to increase diagnosis rates nationwide. "What we proposed to do is to always donate a portion of our profits to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center," Gordon says.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease that affects one in 133 people—or more than 3 million Americans. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, the disease affects the digestive process of the small intestine and is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Left untreated, celiac can lead to other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes and other problems.

Yet, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, of the 3 million Americans with celiac disease, 97% are undiagnosed. In fact, in a 2003 multicenter prevalence study, 60% of children and 41% of adults diagnosed during the study had no symptoms.

Another problem, Gordon says, is that gluten is in many foods that most people don't think contain wheat or other grains. To ensure that L&G Popcorn is gluten-free, Gordon had it tested by a food analysis company and now does ongoing batch tests to ensure its continuing quality. "Gluten is hidden in a lot of things," she says. "Soy is OK, but soy sauce has wheat in it. But once you get into the hang of it, the diet is not difficult to follow."

As part of its awareness-raising effort, L&J is hosting a fundraiser on July 29 for the Celiac Disease Center at Pinstripes restaurant in Northbrook, Ill., with bocce, bowling and gluten-free appetizers and desserts. The event, which will run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., costs $50 per ticket with all proceeds going to the center.

Gordon, who got some marketing help from her father, Joe Rabin, and sister, Michelle Elster, of Rabin Research Co., Chicago—both former presidents of the American Marketing Association—says she became interested in the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center after her daughter was diagnosed with celiac. "The thing about the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center is they have this care-package program," she says. "Anyone who's biopsy-diagnosed with celiac disease anywhere, not just the U. of C., is eligible to get this package.

"It's really the first line of defense for people who are diagnosed," Gordon says. "You're so lost—you have no idea what to eat. And there on your doorstep is this beautiful care package with food and information to help you out."

So far, she says, L&J is meeting its initial goals of sales and awareness. "It's going well. We've had a nice start," Gordon says. "We're selling gluten-free popcorn, and we're supporting the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, too."

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