They call themselves grainiacs, and the goal of the two New Orleans ex-pats and their World Wise Grains company (www.worldwisegrains.com) is to provide delicious, gluten-free foods that are packed with nutrition and excite the taste buds. To accomplish this, Kim Wirth and Kristen Erdem, who moved to Austin after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, looked around the world for both ancient and common grains to make Arzu, a blend of buckwheat groats, quinoa and legumes such as garbanzo bean flakes and northern white bean flakes. The product was released at the end of 2008.
Each 1/2-cup serving contains 8 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber, and is diabetic-friendly and heart-healthy. The original blend can be eaten as a hot breakfast cereal or snack. The Southwest Arzu mix has garlic, cilantro, green onion, cayenne and cumin and can be made into a dip for fresh vegetables, a spread or a side dish; the Chai mix has cinnamon, ginger, salt and cardamom for a sweet dessert that can be accompanied by yogurt and fruit. Arzu also can be substituted for flour in baking. Arzu has been certified as a 100 percent whole-grain product by the Whole Grain Council.
Wirth and Erdem weren't always in the nutrition business. They didn't even know each other when they lived in New Orleans. Wirth was a nurse at Ochsner Medical Center when Hurricane Katrina destroyed her Lakeview home, and Erdem worked at Nextel, which transferred her to Austin after the storm.
"We had a mutual health care provider for our children," Erdem says. "One day she said, 'I know another family from New Orleans in Austin, and I'd like to introduce you.' I called Kim one evening, and talked to her on the phone for an hour. It was shortly after that we started talking about doing a business together."
"When we started out, we thought about sno-balls," Wirth says. "Then we wanted something healthy for children in the school systems." They finally settled on helping people with dietary restrictions because of celiac disease, diabetes and other conditions. "I worked for almost 20 years for Ochsner and other hospitals in the New Orleans area," she says. "I spent the majority of time in the transplant section, where there are numerous dietary restrictions." They learned that gluten-free products with adequate nutrition are particularly difficult to find for people with celiac disease, a genetic disorder that affects one in 100 people and involves an extreme sensitivity to gluten that can cause several painful symptoms as well as an inability to absorb nutrients.
Erdem, who is an insulin-resistant diabetic, knew the challenges of trying to follow a diet low in sugar and carbohydrates. The idea for Arzu came about when Erdem and her family traveled to her husband's native home in Istanbul, and she discovered the traditional Turkish dessert Asure. "I picked up the instant version and brought it to Kim and said, "If we could make this very healthy, we might have something we could market in the United States. Kim had the background in science, being a nurse, and being a New Orleans foodie, she took it and made something so much better."
Wirth says she decided what she wanted the nutrition panel of the product to be, and worked backwards, substituting nutty-tasting grains and protein sources for the rice, sugar and carbohydrates in the original Asure.
"It took us about a year and a half to come up with the perfected formulation," Wirth says. "At first we were trying to recreate Asure, and that was just not working." They went in a different direction, using all the grains they had discovered in their quest to make a healthy Asure and came up with Arzu, which translates as "hope" in Hindi, Persian and several other languages, she says.
"Arzu uses quinoa, one of the only grains on the planet with all the amino acids," Wirth explains. "Our hope is people will have a healthier option in what they eat and what they feed their children."
Their next product will be Tasfa, named for the Ethiopian word for "hope." "We will continue with these blends for people who need healthier food options."
One of the goals of World Wise Grains is to produce versatile products people can eat every day without getting bored, and the founders have developed a variety of recipes to make that possible. They also ask customers to send in their recipes, which are posted on the Web site.
"'Every day a different way' is the motto," Erdem says. "Stuffed artichokes, pie crust, toppings for sweet potato casserole, stuffed crab. We look forward to people letting us know how they use Arzu."
Wirth and Erdem currently are mixing all the grains for the products themselves, which limits the amount they can produce, but they are working to expand that process. They started packaging individual servings because of requests they got from employees and patients at Seton Medical Center in Austin. World Wise Grains plans to stock Arzu, and later Tasfa, in hospitals, pharmacies and health-food stores.
"Initially, we're trying to get Arzu into the hands of people who need it most, the celiac groups," Erdem says. "We were launched by Seton Hospital, and from there it was easy to get into People's Pharmacy, because we don't have to explain the value to them." Peoples Rx is an independently owned pharmacy with four locations in Austin.
"Our whole marketing strategy is going to physicians, and the physicians are endorsing the product because it is so healthy and versatile," Wirth says. "In turn, the physicians recommend it to their patients and give them samples. We're not competing with every gluten-free food on the shelves."
"Our goal is to be the No. 1 physician-recommended gluten-free food," Erdem says.
In the New Orleans area, Arzu is sold at Majoria Drugs (1805 Metairie Road, Metairie, 835-0724), Nature Lovers Health Food (3014 Cleary Ave., Metairie, 887-4929) and Braswell's Drugs (1107 S. Tyler St., Covington, 985-892-0818).