Naomi Poe of Altoona still gets emotional in the detergent aisle at the grocery store.
It's where her son, Zion, who was 4 years old at the time, spoke his first sentence. Until a few weeks before that moment, there was no sign that Zion would come out of his nonverbal, nonresponsive state that Naomi described as "deeply autistic." He was also ill, with playdough-like skin and teeth threatening to fall out of his gums.
Then, three weeks before that day at the grocery store, Zion's doctor suggested putting him on a gluten-free diet, and everything changed.
Naomi Poe of Altoona and her son, Zion, pose with some of Poe’s Better Batter, a gluten-free flour product that she sells nationally.
"We were shopping in the detergent section, and he looked me in the face and said, 'I love you, Mommy,'" Naomi recalled emotionally. "I left my entire cart of groceries and took him home so he could say it for my husband."
Since Zion has been on a gluten-free diet - cutting out the gluten protein found in wheat, barley, rye and malts - he has become highly-functioning and is developing normally. He is just one of a rapidly growing number of people diagnosed with celiac disease, requiring diet restrictions for Naomi and her family.
To cut down on cost, Naomi started experimenting with making her own gluten-free flour. She couldn't get the process - which she said can require using more than 15 different types of flour and 18 sub-ingredients - quite right, even with a food science background.
"It was expensive, and I was frustrated," she said. "I literally prayed, and said 'I just want to make my mom's apple pie.' I went to bed and, in the middle of the night, I had a dream I was mixing up this flour mix and making pie. That's like a musician dreaming up a composition.
"It sounds funny and weird, but that's how it started."
The recipe that came to Naomi in this dream is the same one she now sells throughout the U.S. and soon in Canada after launching her company, Better Batter, in 2006. Her products include all purpose and seasoned flour, and mixes for pancakes, biscuits, brownies, yellow and chocolate cake. Production is done in New York, but distribution, packaging and marketing is all done in Better Batter's Altoona warehouse on East Pleasant Valley Boulevard.
Not only did starting Better Batter help Naomi start a career she is passionate about, but she loves having the opportunity to help others maintain the gluten-free diet for their families.
"These are people who are told your whole life is getting ripped out, everything you've ever known," Naomi said. "Food is love, it's culture, it's history. [When] you're suddenly told you can't eat anything you grew up with, it's like being ripped out of your own culture. It's heartbreaking."
As a business woman, Naomi also had certain priorities when it came to starting Better Batter. She wanted to make sure she treated her employees ethically and kept the product as affordable as possible. So Naomi went the extra mile, going to local businesses like New Pig and Gardener's Candies to ask about their business models and setting up a financial aid service for low-income families, students and people with special needs.
"The way we set the company up was, if you need to save money or want to save money, there's always a way," Naomi said.
Having a high-quality product and company has paid off for Naomi. Though Better Batter is still in the process of setting up distribution in Canada, there are many more sales offers that they have to turn away.
Nicole Hunn, a gluten-free food blogger from Westchester County, N.Y., who uses Better Batter in many of her recipes, recently did a test using three other flour brands to make four different recipes.
"Better Batter came out on top in almost every category," she said. "That basically reinforced my belief that it's the best, most consistently useful [gluten-free] product I'm aware of."
Better Batter was also the cheapest option, Hunn said, including when she made her own flour mixture.
Because of the gluten-free fad emerging in grocery stores, Naomi hopes keeping the diet becomes cheaper and easier for anyone who chooses to do so.
"Back in 2006, there was nothing available at the grocery store," Naomi said. "Now, I can walk in and be picky about what brand of bread I want to buy."
When it comes to the diet's affect on her son, all Naomi knows is that Zion is now a highly functioning, sociable and affectionate 11-year-old doing well in his mainstream classes while still navigating his autism. She hopes that the link between a gluten-free diet and autism are studied soon.
"I know it's not a magic bullet for all kids with autism, " she said of the diet. "But for us, it was salvation."
To find out more about Better Batter, find a local store that carries the brand or to order products online, visit www.betterbatter.org or call 946-0958.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.