CALIFORNIA - When Roni Piterman started selling prepared meals last year, she hoped to build a business that would thrive on the appetites of clients who were too busy to cook.
But after being inundated with requests for sugar-free, gluten-free and allergy-sensitive meals, she realised there was money to be made catering to people with dietary restrictions and food allergies. Even more important to her, Piterman saw how many people and her own son that she could help by opening a business for careful eaters.
In addition to helping people avoid stomach aches and other allergic reactions, the right diet also seemed to help relieve symptoms in those diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a host of other conditions.
Though the medical community says there is no proof that certain diets can help those with autism and other diseases, Piterman and her clients are convinced of dietary healing powers.
Piterman opened Your Dinner Secret with her sister, Ari Kosmal.
"Then we found out about the gluten- and casein-free diet for families with autism. The surprise was how quickly it overtook our business."
As Piterman began researching food and its relationship to autism, ADHD and celiac disease - an abnormal response to gluten in wheat and other grains - she began to recognise some of her son's problems.
"I was looking at it from a business standpoint, but it kept knocking on my mommy head and saying, 'I should try this'."
Ethan, 9, had been diagnosed with ADHD and was taking ritalin. After studying casein - a protein found in milk - and its effect on some kids, Piterman decided to eliminate it and gluten from his diet. The process took two months, but the results were dramatic.
"When I removed casein from my son's diet, within three days, my parents walked into my house and he was watching the Cartoon Network. His grandpa said, 'Hey Ethan, how you doing?' And he turned and said, 'Hi Papa'. And we were just crying because it was the first time he ever did that."
Before the change in diet, there was no way to get Ethan's attention if he was focused on the TV.
While acknowledging there's nothing harmful in removing gluten and casein from the diet, some doctors are not convinced that it can improve conditions such as autism and ADHD, said David Heber, director of the University of California at Los Angeles centre for human nutrition.
"There are people who have genuine celiac disease and casein allergy. Both are real things that cause gastrointestinal problems," Heber said. "But when you start to connect it to ADHD and autism, you're on much shakier ground."
But, he said, if people see results from a diet and it's healthy, they should continue using it.
Other parents say their kids have improved markedly after changing their diets.
"We see a much more expressive person," said Mary Spickler, who put her 6-year-old autistic son on a gluten-free, casein-free diet in September. "He is talking a lot more. The other day I listened to him and his sister play for an hour. We never would have seen that a year ago."
Celebrity mom Jenny McCarthy boosted awareness of the diet-behaviour connection with her book, Louder Than Words, which chronicles her son's struggles with autism. McCarthy is the official spokesman for a support group, Talk About Curing Autism.
With all this attention on diet as a cure, the "free from" food business is booming. The market for gluten-free foods and beverages in the US was about R5,5million in 2006, and it is projected to grow to about R10billion in sales by 2010, according to Mintel, a consumer research group.
Sales of gluten-free bread, cereal and pasta are driven largely by the increasing awareness of celiac disease, but the diet is quickly becoming associated with autism and ADHD in children.
Companies are putting out gluten-free cookies, snacks and even gluten- and casein-free chicken nuggets. Supermarkets are also picking up on the trend.
Piterman says the diet does not work for everyone. But most parents are willing to try something if they think it will help their child.
"It is no coincidence that the greatest numbers of new products were in categories popular with kids, including bakery, dairy, desserts and ice cream, and snacks," the Mintel report said.
"It's important to me that he has food he enjoys," said Spickler. She said the family decided to go gluten- and casein-free as a team, so her son wouldn't feel left out, and for the most part it works.
"My husband has the most difficult time. When he's at work, he'll go and have a big fat pizza."
Spickler spends about R700 to R1 400 a month on food from Your Dinner Secret. She buys about eight to 10 meals, plus daily bread, from the company.
"I just had to move things in our food budget around," she said.
Another customer, Aimee Manis, said buying meals there actually saves her money.
"There's no way I could buy the same quality of chicken for the same prices," said Manis, who buys gluten-free because gluten makes her feel like she has the flu.
She said it is possible to find all the ingredients to cook gluten-free at home. She said non-allergenic takeaway stores are hard to find.
That explains the company's rapid growth. With 600 clients nationwide, Your Dinner Secret started making deliveries twice a month to a hyperbaric centre. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is one treatment for autism.
"It has become such a blessing," Piterman said. "It looked like a good business opportunity and a wonderful way to help others at the same time. "We wanted to give back to our communities." - New York Times