March 17, 2010

It's about 'sticking to your principles' (oh, and great taste)

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

"Smell this," Beth George said as she opened a cardboard box and peeled back the plastic liner.

click image to enlarge

The Spelt Right team of Suzanne Muir, Kip Thiele, founder Beth George and Eliza Birnbaum shows off a fresh-from-the-oven tray of Everything Emma bagels at the bakery in the Sparhawk Mill in Yarmouth.

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer



AT 8 TONIGHT at the Maine College of Art, Osher Hall, MCA alumnus Ben Asselin and professor Dana Sawyer talk about the health, environmental, moral and political reasons to lead a vegan lifestyle. The lecture at the college’s location at 522 Congress St. in Portland is free. For more details, call 775-3052.

I breathed in the rich, heady scent of cinnamon and instantly understood why the owner of the Spelt Right Bakery goes out of her way to source the highest quality ingredients. The cinnamon is non-irradiated and organic, like most of the bakery's ingredients.

"We're very ingredient-conscious," George said. "And we pay for that, but you have to stick to your principles."

Her dedication to quality and health translates into a growing business. Last week, the bakery learned that Whole Foods Markets in the New York region would be picking up the company's signature bagels. On a much smaller scale, the employee store at Maine Medical Center recently added them as well.

"We've been going at one-third of what we can do," George said of the bakery's capacity. "So it should bring us to a new level."

This could mean hiring more people for a second shift or renting additional freezer space to keep up with the demand.

Right now, Spelt Right products are sold in 23 Whole Foods in New England, along with New England Hannaford stores and local health food stores such as Royal River Natural Foods and Lois' Natural Marketplace.

Parkview Hospital in Brunswick uses the bagels and pizza dough in its cafeteria, and Spelt Right sells bagels at a heavily discounted price to the Scarborough and Yarmouth school systems. A number of Portland restaurants and cafes also offer Spelt Right baked goods.

Located in the hydro-powered Sparhawk Mill in Yarmouth, the bakery was born from the idea of making better-for-you food. It all started when George's son was young and suffered a range of illnesses and behavioral issues. The doctors recommended he be treated with prescription drugs, but George, an attorney who'd worked with numerous children in the legal system, had a mother's sense that pharmaceuticals weren't the answer.

Instead, she changed his diet, eliminating high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, MSG, preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. She also eliminated wheat from his diet and replaced it with spelt. "Our son's health and behavioral problems virtually evaporated," she writes on the bakery's Web site.

Now he's an honor student who whips up dinner for the entire family when Mom and Dad are running late. And after what started as a few experiments in her home kitchen, Mom now runs the busy bakery that only uses spelt flour to create artisan baked goods that are both vegan and certified kosher.

Spelt is closely related to wheat, and does contain gluten. This means people with celiac disease or other severe allergies to gluten shouldn't eat it.

But many folks who avoid wheat and gluten find spelt to be a great substitute.

"Like the other ancient grains, spelt was wiped out by industrialization because it wasn't a convenient grain," George said. "When mechanical combines came in, it got caught in the combines, so they ditched the grain."

"they," she means the profit-based industrial agriculture system that brings us the vast majority of our food. But for food producers like George, who go to the extra trouble of producing more nutritious food that also tastes good, the marketplace responds in kind.

"We get these all the time," George said and pulled out a stack of e-mails. Each one tells the story of how a switch from wheat to spelt helped the letter writer or a relative with a range of health issues, including arthritis, Lyme disease, headaches, autism spectrum disorders and inflammatory conditions.

"We get people coming in here and hugging us and crying," George said of the bakery's grateful fans.

Because so much wheat is grown in this country, commercial wheat flour can be purchased for as low as 23 cents a pound, George explained. In contrast, she says she's lucky if she can buy organic spelt flour for $1.10 a pound. As a result, a pack of five Spelt Right bagels retails for $6.

Of course, George has heard the complaint that better-for-you health foods, such as her bagels, are too expensive when compared to the highly processed, mass-marketed food that floods most store shelves.

She feels this argument compares apples to oranges, since many conventional foods include costs to our environment and our health that are not calculated in the purchase price.

"Food should be expensive," George said. "Because what we put into our bodies should help us, not hurt us."


Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:


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