Ruthie's Birthday plus cake gf.jpgWRuthie's Birthday Victoria Sponge gf.jpge had a small party in the glorious sunshine to celebrate a significant birthday yesterday. It was a very low key event with just a handful of friends and family enjoying some food in the garden. Ruth chose the menu and we celebrated with a design your own pizza, followed by a magnificent Victoria Sponge, strawberry jellies, and ice cream cones with smushins. Everything was gluten free and despite some picky eaters in the crowd, everyone really enjoyed the food and the pizza in particular was a huge success.

I was also celebrating my own anniversary quietly. It’s a year since I’ve gone gluten free.

peperoni pizza gf.jpgThere weren’t many leftovers from the party, but this morning I found a few squares of pizza to warm up and as I sat in my comfy garden chair with my lovely hot coffee in one hand and a slice of taleggio and pepperoni pizza in the other, I started to reflect on life in the gluten free lane.

In terms of numbers, there seems to be a lot more people who are gluten free and increasing numbers of people who follow a gluten free diet as a lifestyle choice. This distinction is interesting in itself, as the growth in the sector seems to be fuelled more by lifestylers then by people having Coeliac Disease. I’ve seen in my own classes the growth in numbers with the majority being people with an interest in supporting someone who is gluten free or people choosing to follow a gluten free diet. In a workshop of 24 people, there is likely to be maybe 3 or 4 coeliacs tops.

The question is, is this good or bad? I know many Coeliacs who feel those who jump on the gluten free bandwagon are doing more harm than good. But equally there are also many Coeliacs who appreciate that without the rise in numbers, choices for Coeliacs would be more limited.

pizza express brownie gf.jpgpizza express ice cream and critter.jpgReflecting on how things were 9 years ago, the changes on the high street are dramatic. There is certainly more awareness in shops and cafes and the availability of gluten free options increases day by day. We now see many of the high street chains introducing gluten free options on their menus, something I was campaigning for 9 years ago. Pizza Express, Prezzo and Dominos have all taken the plunge into catering for gluten free and getting accreditation from Coeliac UK in safe food handling practices to avoid cross contamination. This is a huge step forward.

Awareness is increasing but there is also increased confusion about what being gluten free means. In a conversation a few weeks ago a friend told me she was now following a gluten free diet. We sat down to have some lunch and she started to ask me about different items and whether or not they were gluten free. She was surprised to hear how much gluten she was still eating. In most people’s eyes, gluten free is about avoiding bread, pasta , biscuits and cakes. They are often unaware that much of what they are eating contains hidden gluten. The pre-grated cheese, the sausages, the salad dressing, the crisps, even the drinks from a vending machine often contain gluten. And let’s not even start with pre-prepared meals, sauces, chocolates, sweets, ice creams and dips.

Despite the huge spike in awareness, manufacturers still seem reluctant to ditch the gluten. We would all gain if manufacturers woke up to the fact that much of the gluten in their products is totally unnecessary. Ditching the gluten would make their products suitable for that 1% and steadily growing number of people who are looking for gluten free alternatives. But it seems that ditching the gluten doesn’t make as much economic sense as creating a new line of ‘gluten free’ products.

This morning, I received in my inbox photographs of cake, cookie and brownie mixes with the words GLUTEN FREE written large. These come from America and carry well known brand names such as Betty Crocker . Gluten Free is big business in America and companies like Dunkin Donuts are bringing out gluten free doughnuts to the delight of millions of Americans.

I may be a complete kill joy in saying this, but I think this isn’t the right way to go. Yes there is loads of money in this but it’s not doing us any favours on the health front. If you are serious about going gluten free, because you have a medical reason or simply because you choose to, then eating high calorie, saturated fats isn’t going to do much for your health. Call me cynical , but manufacturers are not introducing gluten free lines because they care about our health, but because they know they can charge a lot more money.

The truth is that big brands introducing gluten free products is both good and bad. We do need big brands to pave the way, but we also need better quality food without all the added junk. The free from aisles in our supermarkets paint an accurate picture. There are some small producers making high quality specialist products which retain their integrity and most importantly can be judged on taste alone. They struggle to make a living in the free from aisle because the market for their products is limited. But there are also many products which are quite frankly an embarrassment. Biscuits which taste of sawdust, breads which are like slabs of concrete, sauces that are laden with chemicals and cereals chock full of sugar and salt all of which really give gluten free products a bad reputation. And all of this creates confusion. People often ask me “is following a gluten free diet healthier?”. The answer is yes… long as you stay away from lots of pre-prepared, ready made gluten free products most of which are sat firmly in the gluten free aisles. I hate saying this because I want to champion more choice and better quality food in the free from area. So the debate goes on.

Gazing into the crystal ball, I think the picture will be different in 5 years. We are 5 years behind the US in terms of the marketing and sales of gluten free products so we may very well see the big brands introducing gluten free lines here in the UK, because by then the market will be large enough to make it commercially worthwhile. The optimist in me is hoping for the following: I’m hoping that there will be a shift in the way we eat with many of us being more aware of what is in our food and making healthier choices. The pessimist in me, tells me that is unlikely to happen. So plan B is: I hope consumers become more aware of all the naturally gluten free options available and will look more closely at labels. I’m hoping that manufacturers will do the responsible thing and look for ways to take the gluten out of products, rather then develop alternative product lines for which they can charge 3 times the normal price. But most of all I’m hoping that small specialist producers get the recognition they deserve and that they can benefit from the increase in gluten free diets, providing great tasting, well made food which is suitable for everyone.

Your rating: None