Gluten-free: Intolerant or intolerable?

Gluten-free: Intolerance or intolerable?

by Tom Wildman 15 October 2015

Gluten-free food is having a bit of a ‘moment’. Once just a term restricted to doctors surgeries and medical books, it’s gone from fussy to fashionable in the space of just a few years. Now with cookbooks, supermarket aisles and restaurants dedicated to gluten-free food, we wonder what this actually means for those with a real gluten-intolerance.

A Cordon Bleu graduate from Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Tom shares his food passions both in the kitchen and by writing about his favourite dishes.

A Cordon Bleu graduate from Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Tom shares his food passions both in the kitchen and by writing about his favourite dishes.

In recent years, a gluten-free movement has swept through the UK, changing the way millions of us eat. Once only known for being a medical necessity, today eating gluten-free has become a major food trend and a popular lifestyle choice, with the UK market forecast to be worth over half a billion by 2017.

A key reason for this surge in demand is the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet by people without a physical intolerance. This new breed of gluten-avoiders report numerous health benefits after maintaining gluten-free diets, including less bloating, weight loss and increased energy levels. Sceptics, however, have been quick to dismiss these claims and have labelled the diet as simply another health fad, along the same lines as juicing, raw and carb-free diets. So has being trendy been a help or a hindrance to the gluten-intolerant?

Arguably the answer may be the latter, as the risk is that being fashionable may mask the real dangers faced by coeliacs and intolerance sufferers. It’s sometimes easy to forget the real health issues when magazines are plastered with celebrities claiming that going gluten-free helped them lose weight, or when TV shows such as the Great British Bake Off dedicate shows to cooking elaborate bakes with alternative ingredients.

The real facts are that gluten is formed by the combination of two proteins, which although are predominantly found in wheat, they are also present in other cereal grains. Most common foods that use gluten are breads, pasta, cakes/biscuits and beer. Many people assume gluten just means flour or wheat, but this isn’t the case, with many coeliacs claiming there is still a serious lack of understanding over what it means to be gluten-intolerant.

By labelling people on gluten-free diets as part of a health fad, or merely fussy eaters, we run the risk of not taking the entire gluten-intolerant community seriously. Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, the founder of gluten-free food company Genius and mother of two children with food allergies, spoke to us about the danger this poses: ‘a cavalier attitude by the person preparing food, i.e. at someone's home or at a restaurant, can be really damaging and quite dangerous. We’ve personally been in situations when people haven’t taken it seriously and then there's been a reaction’.

A typical example of this casual approach is when a cook reuses the same, unwashed, equipment that they used for a gluten-based dish to make a gluten-free alternative. It can take as little as a 0.2% trace of gluten for someone with coeliac disease to have a reaction. Once they do they are likely to be unwell within a few hours with symptoms such as severe diarrhoea and vomiting which can last several days. As Lucinda points out, this is the side of the gluten-intolerance that most people don’t get to see.

That being said, today it is easier than ever for the gluten-intolerant to find suitable alternatives on the supermarket shelves. Lucinda set up the Genius company after struggling for years to find a good gluten-free bread, with limited products available and most bearing no real resemblance to actual bread. To add insult to injury, it was also incredibly expensive, with brands charging up to £10 for a gluten-free loaf. Making her own recipe at home, she discovered it was possible to produce something not only edible, but tasty, too, and her brand has now diversified into other products, and is now one of many varieties stocked in free-from aisles at all major supermarkets.

Clearer labelling on product packaging has meant gluten-containing products are easier to spot, and many restaurants are also adopting this option on menus. Eating out has traditionally been a challenge for those with an intolerance, but certain major chains now offer extensive gluten-free menus, and a law passed in 2014 meant that all restaurants have to be able to account for fourteen major allergens in all their dishes.

These changes are real cultural shifts towards a greater tolerance of intolerances, and as long as the fad doesn’t take over from the facts, then surely that can only be a good thing? As a by-product of this fashionable trend, living with a real intolerance has been made that little bit easier and hopefully, a bit more bearable.