A business built by necessity
Lengthy illness leads to gluten-free goodies
Baking wasn’t the only thing out of the question for Tara Wright just two years ago.
Plagued by bouts of debilitating fatigue, just getting out of bed was almost impossible most days. She lived with severe joint and muscle pain that stumped doctors and kept getting worse, until the mysterious illness had stolen nearly 20 years from her.
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic gave her an equally mystifying diagnosis: undifferentiated autonomic neuropathy/peripheral neuropathy, an autoimmune disorder, and gastroparesis, or digestive paralysis.
“I was going crazy,” Wright says. “I had almost given up.”
Barely 40 years old, Wright was frustrated and desperate for anything that might make her feel better. She reached out to a local chiropractor, hoping he might be able to relieve some of the pain, but Dr. Bud Miller was reluctant to give her false hope.
Wright convinced him to at least give her an initial exam and he gave her an assignment: Keep a food diary. It was the first time she ever really paid attention to what she was eating and how it made her feel.
About the same time, Wright’s daughter Adriana Diaz coaxed her out of bed and into the kitchen for a rare plan to bake with a bread machine. Mother and daughter baked and ate bread together, but Wright noticed that she felt even worse than usual did the next day.
“I decided I was going to try to avoid bread for a few days, just to see if some of the bloating would go away,” Wright says.
After four days without wheat, Wright was surprised by how good she felt. She was able to get out of bed. After a month without wheat, she had significantly more energy. The joint pain, muscle aches and neurological problems began to subside. She surprised her family and neurologists with her recovery, but everyone was cautious.
That didn’t stop Wright. Her stamina was sapped by the years she spent in bed, so researching gluten-free foods and celiac disease became part of her recovery. She started with a single recipe and worked until she could make three or more each day. She began mixing and experimenting with gluten-free flours and starches, searching for the perfect recipe to replace the baked goods she loved so much.
It was the beginning of Fusion Flours. After a year of experiments and flops, Wright launched the business in June 2010 to share her gluten-free discoveries with others diagnosed with celiac disease and people who are allergic to wheat or sensitive to gluten.
Now, Wright and her daughter are up during the wee hours, baking at a Spokane commercial kitchen before sunrise. They sell mixes for the gluten-free breads, scones, cookies, pancakes and cakes that Wright learned to make. They parbake gluten-free pizza crusts that are used by several local pizzerias for their gluten-free pizzas and sold in the freezer section at local markets.
The women sell their gluten-free goodies at the Spokane Public Market, 24 W. Second Ave., where customers are routinely surprised by the taste and texture of their offerings. Baked goods made without gluten can sometimes have a gritty texture from the rice flours used as a subsititute for wheat. Wright’s baked goods can make people forget what they’re eating is not traditional scratch baking.
Diaz says a recent customer at the Spokane Public Market loved their scones so much he was trying to convince them to make a delivery to his house for weekend guests. When Diaz asked him a bit more about serving gluten-free foods to everyone, he said, “What’s gluten?”
For the uninitiated, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Celiac disease is a digestive disease caused when those proteins damage the villi of the small intestine and prevent absorption of nutrients from food. If it is untreated, some people with celiac disease can experience the kind of autoimmune problems that Wright was having. A gluten-free diet is the only existing treatment for the disease.
The National Center for Celiac Awareness says about 1 in 133 Americans, or about 3 million people in the U.S., have celiac disease. Some 95 percent of celiacs are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions and the average person waits six to 10 years to be correctly diagnosed, according the the center.
Many other people are allergic to gluten or gluten intolerant.
Although she’s still recovering from the problems caused by the undiagnosed celiac disease, Wright says she feels like she won her life back. She’s anxious to help others and will even experiment with eliminating other ingredients from her baking if people ask because they have other allergies.
They’ve been offering samples at local markets for the past year and have won some fans, although they’ve found people can be quite reluctant to give gluten-free foods a try.
“A lot of people are just scarred by some of the gluten-free goods on the market,” Diaz says.
Diaz does not have celiac disease, but she eats gluten-free to support her mom. She handles the marketing and sales for Fusion Flours.