As someone who teaches gluten free baking, encourages and advocates making your own, I was a bit taken aback by the article in the Sunday Times (4 October 2015), written by the well respected and consumer champion Joanna Blythman. Unfortunately, I can’t share the article with you as it is on a subscription only basis so if you want to know exactly what she wrote, you will have to find a copy.
My main issue is that Joanna Blythman seems to be completely unaware of the reality of living gluten free in the UK. For those who have coeliac disease or cook for loved ones who medically have to avoid anything with gluten, her damming critique of gluten free food, is really unhelpful and her expectations are unrealistic. It also feels like she’s got an axe to grind. Maybe the growing tsunami of gluten avoiders is taking it’s toll on the artisan bread industry, and there is a need to scare the living daylights out of anyone who avoids gluten for either medical or lifestyle reasons.
In her opening paragraph, Joanna talks about the gluten free bread her friend brought with her and how this bread had to be scraped off the inside of her toaster due to all the gums and glues made to produce it. This paragraph is either a work of fiction or the friend in question must have tried to put uncooked bread in the toaster. In any case the opening paragraph sets the scene for what is a finger pointing exercise full of inflammatory words and faulty logic.
In her defense, much of her claims about the state of the free from industry are true. High fat, high sugar and high in dubious additives, readymade glutenfree food isn’t a healthy option. However, much of what she highlights as bad practice in the gluten free world, are the same practices used in the making of most processed food. Take bread for example. According to the Real Bread Campaign, very few commercially made bread products meet their rigorous standards of ‘real bread’. A quick look through the labels on supermarket shelves will reveal a large list of unpronounceable additives and ingredients which are there to prolong shelf life and make white spongy bread. Hardly any loaves on sale will meet their criteria for ‘real bread’. The use of sugar to make brown loaves brown, which Ms Blythman highlights as a trick used by gluten free manufacturers, is also a practice used widely in industrial bread making industry. I don’t agree with this practice, but I don’t like the fact that in her article, one is given the impression it only happens in the gluten free world.
There is also a bold claim that progressive manufacturers are cleaning up their act and ”gluten free is a haven for substances that progressive companies increasingly shun’. I don’t think it’s a haven, but a necessity in many instances. Removing gluten from food means a reduction in flavour. To boost flavour, manufacturers use salt, sugar and fat. It may come as a surprise to Ms Blythman, but people may not be very keen to buy food which is completely pale, bland and tasteless. As far as progressive manufacturers using clean ingredients, I don’t see a lot of evidence of this. A few weeks ago, I noticed ammonia listed on a pack of crisps from one of the mainstream crisp manufacturers. These were not marketed as ‘gluten free’ crisps by the way. These are the kind of crisps everyone can eat.
Her use of language is inflammatory. Ms Blythman states the additives in gluten free breads, are there to add ‘cheap architectural bulk’ . Cheap and blulk are words which indicate a lack of understanding. The additives are there to add structural support (architecture), because gluten free bread needs structural support. It’s nothing to do with being cheap or adding bulk. Gluten free bread by it’s nature has a very weak structure and requires more water then traditional bread. Gluten, the missing element is what underpins the foundations of a good loaf of bread. Without gluten, you may get a decent rise, but the lack of structure will mean a dense, concrete loaf. The rules of bread making, don’t apply to gluten free bread making. It is possible to make really good gluten free bread, but you need to think out of the box and sometimes there is a need to supplement the structure of bread using natural ingredients like egg whites. Even egg whites get the Daily Mail treatment. Ms Blythman describes egg whites in gluten free manufacturing as ‘a cheap binder’. It’s true that eggs bind and that they help baked goods to rise and as far as I know, they come from chickens. Not sure why they get singled out in this way or why egg whites are something nasty to be avoided.
Joanna illustrates her points by carrying out an experiment in her kitchen using one of the rogue agents. She adds a scary photo of a gluey substance in a glass, along with the provocative headline stating your gluten free bread is made with glue. This is very misleading. If you place gluten powder in a glass of water you will see pretty much the same thing. Gluten, a natural substance, is a type of glue which sticks to your intestines. It’s also a powerful binding agent used with gay abandon throughout the food processing industry. It’s in practically all readymade meals and processed foods and wait for it, it is the key component in BREAD. Real bread, contains gluten and gluten is a protein that acts like glue and if you eat the cheap nasty stuff, it will stick to your insides and cause all sorts of digestive disorders.
Her comment about xanthan gum and its use in industrial applications follows the same faulty logic. Xanthan gum is used widely in all food production not just in gluten free food. You will find it in readymade sauces, readymade meals, ice cream, baked goods, margarine, you name it, it’s in there. In terms of it’s industrial use, it may very well be good for soaking up oil residues but so what? Lots of products, both natural and manmade have industrial uses. Salt, which is needed to sustain life, is used in many technical applications including the production of synthetic rubber and plastic. Water is used to flush toilets.
I am all for Joanna exposing the stupidity of what goes on in food manufacturing. It’s happening all around us and as consumers, we need to be aware of what is in our food and how it’s produced. Coeliac’s have a tough time when it comes to food. They have to pick their way through a minefield of labels and choices are often limited. For many coeliac’s eating can take on psychological issues, as the worry and fear of eating something that will make you very ill, is always there. In children, this can be incredibly difficult and many parents including myself, try very hard to offer food which fits into the norm. For many, baking their own bread, cooking every meal and learning how to adapt recipes to be gluten free is quite an onerous task. My fear is that this article will cause a lot of anxiety and stress. What a shame that Joanna Blythman didn’t use this opportuntity to use her knowledge, experience and influence to help food manufacturers understand the value of reengineering their products to cater for the growing demand of glutenfree food.
If you read the article or want to comment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.