Connecting the celiac disease and food allergy/intolerance community together by sharing our stories to food freedom. From our beginning struggles to striving after a diagnosis, we can all relate and help each other out by sharing what we’ve learned and our unique personal journeys.
I am beyond honored to have an icon in the gluten-free community on this week’s Freedom Feature. Jules Shepard, the founder of gfJules, has created an empire of amazing gluten-free, celiac-safe flour mixes that are a staple and so loved by the community. I’ve gotten to know Jules over the last few years and am always inspired by her dedication to the celiac community and her determination to only support the safest products, environments, practices, and incredible advocacy for all things gluten-free. Not only does she have a thriving business, but is also the author of numerous cookbooks and makes sure her products and recipes are adaptable for all food allergens. Jules is sharing the story of her business and her own celiac story so be prepared for a long and wonderful read (as well as an exclusive giveaway at the end of this post!)
background: who are you?
I have always been a person with a fierce sense of loyalty, of right and wrong, and of my faith. How that manifests itself has changed quite a bit over my life.
When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I was prosecuting domestic violence crimes, training police officers and helping to draft stalking laws; now I write cookbooks, travel the country teaching people how to bake gluten free and own a gluten free flour and mixes company. Despite these obvious differences, I see the experiences as fundamentally the same, since at the end of the day I feel good about what I have done to help others and I derive positive energy from my work.
tell us your celiac journey that lead to creation of your business?
I have been a vegetarian since I lived in Malaysia as an exchange student when I was 15 years old. When I was in college, my diet basically consisted of all things glutenous (bagels, pizza, pasta, beer … you know — college). I had a history of getting super sick with sinus infections and migraines, but other than that, I felt like I could pretty much eat anything I wanted to, and I’d be ok. Then one day I felt like I’d contracted the stomach flu, but I never got better. It was like a light switch had been flipped and suddenly one day I was sick from then on. For ten years.
I was seen by doctors in several states who seemingly ran every test under the sun, but no one could find anything wrong with me, so they said I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and that I should eat more fiber (i.e. gluten).
I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease in 1999 and that doctor said I basically had no villi left at that point. He was happy to have correctly diagnosed me, but had no idea how to tell me to live my life from that time forward because there was no prescription for living gluten free. I felt isolated, depressed, anti-social and hopeless because there seemed to be nothing left I could eat.
I lived that way until my son was born and I had stopped working in order to stay home with him. I got back into the kitchen and decided that it was time for me to attack this situation head-on, and to develop an all purpose flour so that I could bake like I used to (I’m from the South – we bake!). It took me nearly 2 years of trial and error but I finally developed a flour I could use in anything, which meant I could ditch the recipes that called for 5 different flours and never turned out anyway. I went back to my family recipes and just used my flour and life was good again!
I shared some of my scones and cookies with a friend I’d made who was also celiac and she couldn’t believe how good they were. She encouraged me to write a cookbook, and eventually I decided to do it. I didn’t think it would sell or anything, I just wanted to have something to show for my efforts and honestly, I wanted all my recipes in one place to be more convenient for me!
Turns out, my cookbook (Nearly Normal Cooking for Gluten Free Eating) became very popular! I started to hear from people all over who had bought it and loved the recipes, all of which were predicated on my homemade all purpose flour recipe. But the one thing everyone said was that they didn’t want to have to make the flour for themselves because it’s hard to shop around for all the ingredients, to find individual ingredients that are certified GF and to spend the time mixing them all together to have a blend. So, I started to teach myself about how to get into the flour business.
I started my company, Nearly Normal Cooking, improved my flour formula and started selling the new gluten free all purpose flour blend and a few baking mixes in 2007, and have written 2 more published books and numerous e-books since then.
what is your company/brand and what’s your mission?
My company is now called gfJules™ and it’s founded on the mission of helping others who are living gluten free by necessity, and helping them to live an easier, better tasting life. I share recipes that are easy and quick to make, without a load of complicated or hard to find ingredients, many of which call for my flour as the one flour ingredient to make it easier (just like we all used to use All Purpose Wheat Flour). When my customers ask for a particular mix, I try to also make that for them too, since not everyone always wants or has time to bake from scratch. I also share information and articles on how to live gluten free safely and I advocate for proper gluten free food labels and safe food for celiacs.
tell us about the products your produce?
My flagship product is obviously my gfJules™ Gluten Free All Purpose Flour. It is the foundation of my mixes and any of my recipes calling for flour can be made with it, but it also allows you to return to your grandmother’s recipes or other favorite wheat-based recipes and bake them gluten free. It’s a very liberating experience to get those family recipes back in your life!
I have tweaked and modified my flour blend over the years from the first homemade blend I shared in my book. It now extends the shelf life of your baked goods, and works even better in pastry applications. I love it! You can make anything from wontons to puff pastry, cupcakes to cookies, roux to pizza. It’s my favorite product because you can do anything with it! And it was just ranked #1 certified Gluten Free Flour in the 2016 consumer choice Gluten Free Awards (#2 overall).
There are times when a mix makes things so handy, though! Among the mixes I now make, are my cornbread mix that people who don’t even like cornbread swear they love; my cookie mix and pancake mix that were just ranked #3 among all similar GF mixes in the 2016 Gluten Free Awards; my graham cracker mix that is among the most versatile mixes I’ve ever heard of, my pizza mix that also makes calzones and baguettes and is fast becoming our best-selling mix, and my sandwich bread mix that was also just ranked #1 Gluten Free Bread Mix in the 2016 Gluten Free Awards.
All of my products are made in a dedicated Gluten-Free and Kosher certified facility and they are all individually certified. My flour is non-GMO and my products are not made with any of the Top 8 food allergens.
what about your blog? how do you cultivate that part of your brand?
I started my blog when I had attended Natural Products Expo West for the first time, and had an urgent message for our community, but no platform from which to share it.
At the time, Snyder’s of Hanover had just released its gluten free pretzels. I approached their booth, asking for more details about how they were isolating the gluten pretzels and ingredients from the gluten free line. I was told by the Vice President of Marketing that they were using the same equipment for both and that they had no intention of getting certified GF. He told me he “didn’t want the headaches” that came with it. He elaborated that Snyder’s didn’t want to have to do any product recalls or lose inventory because any given run may test at over 20 ppm gluten. He even threw out the example that if someone “forgot to wash down the line” between gluten and gluten-free runs, he didn’t want to have to “report to anyone else, pull inventory or do any recalls of product”. He went so far as to say that although the bags are currently labeled “Gluten Free” and also “Wheat Free,” the company is actually going to take off the “Wheat Free” designation since the products are run with wheat products and are potentially contaminated with wheat. Shockingly, he indicated that the “Gluten Free” label would remain, however.
I asked him how he thought that could be prudent when he was selling to people with celiac disease who relied upon the company to keep them safe if they labeled their product “gluten free.” His reply (paraphrased): “We’re not selling to celiacs. We’re selling to dieters.”
I was appalled at their complete misunderstanding of their obligations when selling to a gluten free consumer, and so I wrote Snyder’s President a letter explaining why they should be making a product safe for celiacs if they were going to label their product gluten free, and how this process was most definitely not safe for celiacs. I got no response.
I needed a platform to share this information so that I could try to keep my fellow celiacs safe. I went to a friend who had a blog and asked her to share it with her followers. She did and there was an outcry from the community. We asked people to write to Snyder’s and within days they’d had so many letters, emails and calls that they responded to my friend directly and called the GFCO to try to get certified.
I share expert advice, interviews and vetted information as well as unbiased product reviews and hundreds of free gluten free and allergen-friendly recipes on a searchable recipe platform.
Since the Synder’s debacle, I have used my blog to spread information about other causes, including our building The World’s Tallest Gluten Free Cake in 2011 as part of our successful 1in133 mission to pressure the FDA to issue gluten free food regulations (regulations finalized in 2014), and our Ditch Amber campaign to pressure the NFCA to remove their endorsement of Domino’s “gluten free” pizzas, as well as spreading facts and information about “gluten free” Cheerios, among others.
do you have an allergy-free or celiac tip to share?
Never go hungry! Always travel with a GF protein bar, trail mix, or other emergency snacks so that you’re not tempted to cheat or cut corners with cross-contamination risks and you don’t get “hangry!”
favorite recipe(s) of yours to share with us?
Depends on the season … maybe even the day! This time of year, I’m all about Lemon Bars, Hot Cross Buns and Coconut Pie, but I’m always in love with my pizza and calzones recipes, baguettes and graham crackers.
what do you hope to see in the future, for yourself and the community relating to your illness?
I hope that one day there is a pill that we can take in the event we think we might have been glutened or there’s a risk for cross-contamination, because being glutened is a nightmare only those with celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can truly understand.
I do not want people to think they can take a pill and order out for gluten pizza, though. To me, that mentality is not healthy. Our bodies are telling us they don’t like gluten, and since we control whether or not we put gluten into our bodies, we should take that control rather than thinking we can just pop a pill.
Going gluten free has been an amazing experience for me personally. I have learned so much about nutrition and about how to feed my body in a healthy, safe way. I have control over everything I put into my body and that makes me feel great. I eat hardly any processed food anymore, and buy local when I can. I eat fresh, whole foods and bake anything I want. It’s a wonderful way to live if you embrace it for what it is and the opportunity it offers, rather than looking at it as a penance or something to be “treated” with a prescription.
I also hope that we are able to better educate physicians and those in health care who could help identify those with celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity so that others will not have to suffer as so many of us have, with protracted illness and poor health due to misdiagnosis.
I hope to be able to continue to serve our community by running my company and continuing to produce the highest quality, safest and best gluten free products available. Every time someone posts a picture of something they’ve made with my flour or mixes and says that for the first time, their whole family loved something they’d baked, I’ve been a part of bringing joy to a family. My hope is that over time, I can reach more and more families to give them hope that gluten free can be a delicious gift and opportunity for better health without the deprivation so many feel because of it.
Not everyone is comfortable baking from scratch or confident enough to try lots of different flours and experiment with new things. And realistically, most of us don’t have a lot of extra time to spend in the kitchen, playing with recipes that might not work. So my flour and products appeal to those who want delicious food they can feed their whole families without a lot of fuss or a cabinet full of semi-random products. I’m happy to offer a tried and true solution to those who need it.
Now time to enter the giveaway Jules so generously is offering! You get a chance to win a Pizza Making Kit to whip up some of the BEST gluten-free pizza you’ve ever had! Simple easy and safe for any celiac or allergy-eater! (Closes 2 week from today, winner will be contacted directly!)
Thank you Jules! You are one rockin’ celiac goddess! Follow along with Jules on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest! She loves seeing her products in action so remember to tag her on your creations (and me too I want to see)!
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