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Food that's free Local sisters baking treats that cater to food-sensitive consumers

It started modestly, two sisters baking special brownies that their mother -- who has celiac disease -- could enjoy.

But there's a big food-sensitive world out there, and Susan Daubney and Joan Pedlow of Grand Island have tapped into it.

The brownies, now being produced under the brand name "It's OK," are being served in Orlando's Disney World and other Disney enterprises -- to the tune of some 2,500 pieces a week.

The whole thing happened fast. It was only two years ago that Daubney and Pedlow formed a company, GLP Free Manufacturing Corp., to make people with special food needs happy. The initials stand for gluten-free, lactose-free and nut-free, but the products also have the advantage of appealing to other current food concerns.

They are also trans-fat free, low sodium, yeast-free, soy-free and free of the milk protein called casein. But they are not free of taste. Believe it or not, they taste pretty good, too!

The sisters also bake and sell cookies, bread, rolls and pizza crust from their tiny inspected kitchen on Grand Island.

"I'm 45 years old, and I had no plans on baking brownies for a living," says Daubney, who developed the dessert that started it all in 2004 when her mother, Penny Panepinto, was diagnosed. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition triggered by the intake of gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and often, rye. The prescription diet made eating joyless.

"I come from a big Italian family -- we get together often and eat pasta, desserts and bread," Daubney says. "There was nothing my mother could eat there, and she felt excluded."

Her daughter was up to the challenge.

"I started with brownies because they were easy," Daubney says. And, after a few false starts, she baked a gluten-free brownie without wheat flour. And what a brownie! Nongritty, sweet but not too sweet, chocolatey -- it was a goodie her mother could eat happily.

But it was so delicious that everyone else in the extended family was happily eating it, too. "So," Daubney says, "I decided to go into the business. I thought to myself, 'Maybe I could be another Mrs. Field.'"

And, in a way, that's what she became.

Help wasn't hard to find, of course. Daubney's sister, Joan Pedlow, was sitting right across the table. Pedlow, who is both a registered dietitian and a registered nurse, knew what she was dealing with. She started to help her sister, first designing a government-approved label and then helping with recipe development and marketing, too.

Since the dietitian had worked with many community groups -- she is currently a nutritionist with the Food Bank of Western New York and an adjunct professor at Buffalo State College, now studying for her doctoral degree in autoimmune disease -- she recognized a potential market.

Her research indicated that at least 30 million Americans suffer from some sort of food intolerance and about 11 million suffer from food allergies -- two million of them schoolchildren.

It's thought that one out of every 133 Americans is affected by celiac disease alone. Pedlow knew that a gluten-free, lactose-free, peanut-free, guilt-free product had appeal.
What happened next to Daubney and Pedlow was amazing. The sisters contacted Disney World about their baked goods. "Send samples," was the response.

Never mind UPS or the U.S. Postal Service; Daubney and Pedlow hand-carried their brownies to Florida and, incredibly, signed a contract on the spot. The Disney representatives went so far as to ask if the women had any food other than the brownie to sell.

Did they ever.

Daubney and Pedlow had dreamed up good-tasting gluten-free, lactose-free, peanut-free Crispy Rice treats (with drizzled chocolate frosting); also, chocolate chip cookies.

The sisters have also developed gluten-free bread, rolls, and herb pizza crusts. By this time, Daubney's own FDA-approved kitchen was getting rather cramped. So they installed a new approved kitchen where cross-contamination would not be a problem.

They have a few part-timers working for them, but Daubney is still there at 4 a.m., taking the brownies out of the oven. And both sisters are still attaching labels by hand on the individually wrapped baked goods.

Again, the quarters are getting small. The search is on for a new kitchen and new products. In development are a whole-grain bread made not from wheat but from other grains most people have never heard of, like amaranth and teff.

It's sure to be a success, given the current emphasis on whole-grain foods.

Dr. Stanley Schwartz, chief of the Allergy and Immunology departments at UB, speculates that the growing recorded number of allergies and food intolerances may be spurred by better diagnostic measures, and by the growing cosmopolitan aspects of the American diet.

"It's a growing climate and a good one," says Schwartz. "Both the medical community and patient advocacy groups are making this a good issue and it's getting into the press. Entrepreneurs are aware of this, and I think it's wonderful.

"Before this, people were left with unpalatable diets."

Special foods -- those designed for people who have food intolerances and allergies -- are a big niche market these days. They played a big part in the recent fancy food show in New York City.

In the meantime, Daubney and Pedlow continue to bake and experiment. They go to food shows, they spread the word; they raise awareness. They also sell retail in several small outlets in the city.

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