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Gluten free – need or nonsense?

“Make a wish!”

As I blow the thirteen candles out, an alarming ring from the kitchen phone pierces all illusions of birthday magic. I’m startled. Can that be David Attenborough inviting me to join him on a trek to Amazon Rainforest already? As I start dividing the cake, my mum cautiously enters the room, hesitating before she announces that the hospital called with the biopsy results. I reach out to a slice of soft, springy sponge. It looks little like Mary Berry’s, but it’s close enough.

“Stop! They came back positive, you can’t eat that!”

Big mistake: I should have used that wish more carefully. Looks like my dreams of broadcasting the next Blue Planet will have to wait whilst I try to understand a disease I can’t even spell. And what is gluten anyway, asides from something Mary Berry uses in her recipes?

Gluten, so I learnt a week later, is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. For the 1% of the population with coeliac disease, this rules out anything from bread, biscuits and pasta to soy sauce. Even those foods labelled ‘may contain’ are off the menu, which sadly includes Jazzles, my childhood obsession. This hereditary disease causes a heightened immunological response to gluten which flattens the villi (finger-like projections lining the small intestine), decreasing their surface area so fewer nutrients like iron are absorbed. This is why studies show that up to 84% of coeliacs have iron-deficient anaemia. Whilst short-term reactions like intense fatigue, bloating and abdominal pain impaired my daily activities, the consultant warned me of more serious long term consequences like increased risk of osteoporosis and rare cancers if I didn’t change to a strict gluten-free diet. In practical terms, this translates to separate chopping boards, separate spreads, even toaster bags to avoid cross contamination of crumbs, and of course a supply of Sainsbury’s free-from ‘equivalent’ of Jaffa Cakes. Not only are these free from gluten, but flavour and moisture too!

But with influential figures like Miley Cyrus, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian and Novak Djokovic following gluten-free diets, the term has become (misguidedly) synonymous with ‘healthy’, sparking a fashionable trend to adopt the gluten-free ‘lifestyle’. Now whilst I wouldn’t agree with one article in the New York Times which claims that “Eating gluten-free is dismissed outright as a trend for the rich, the white and the political left”, it is interesting to reflect on how waiters have noted my blonde hair and pale complexion as I ask them for the gluten-free menu. People seem divided into two categories: those devoted to gluten-free products, and those who cast it off as a complete and utter fad.

True, my brothers like to joke that the free-from isle in Tesco’s will one day take over the whole store, but in serious terms ‘free-from’ sales in the UK increased by 40% between 2016-2017 and are projected to continue growing. In America, the gluten-free market was worth $8.8bn in 2014, and through the internet the gluten-free community has grown to about 40 million consumers, of whom only 4 million suffer from coeliac disease and 20 million from gluten intolerance.

For us coeliacs, this is a wish come true! Back in 2014, thirteen-year-old me was spending £3.90 on a shrivelled-up, rock-like substance labelled as ‘bread’, more often than not opting to have (for the fourth time that week) another jacket potato with beans. Today, I can buy a multi-grain loaf from Tesco Metro for £1.80 – still about double the price of the ‘normal’ bread, but nevertheless good news for both my sandwiches and student loan. As demand increases, companies are pressurised to supply higher quality products. Gone are the days where Genius dominated the free from shelves. Now supermarkets are developing own-label lines to meet demands for greater variety and lower prices. And apart from supermarkets, the letters ‘GF’ have become a natural part of restaurant menus.

But surely Miley Cyrus can’t be the sole reason for this drastic development in the food industry? Since it was first cultivated some 10,000 years ago, why is it that people suddenly can’t eat wheat?

10,000 years ago there were no industrial bakeries with huge, automated machines required for producing the amount of loaves needed for the billions of people living today. Traditional methods included a long, slow fermentation process, but modern manufacturers have omitted this, drastically reducing the time taken to produce one loaf. However, this prevents lactic acid bacteria from breaking down fully or partially the gluten proteins, making the bread more difficult to digest. Warburton’s may claim to be passionate about baking bread for families, but at the end of the day commercial bakeries, like any company, want high profits, and this means making bread as cheaply and quickly as possible. Further still, the bread eaten today contains more gluten than ever. In today’s society where bigger means better, manufacturers are adding more gluten to create larger, lighter and fluffier loaves to look like ‘good value for money’. The irony is, this has a greater cost. Studies suggest that our bodies have not adapted quickly enough to respond to this increased intake of gluten, and thus gluten intolerance may actually be increasing proportionally, not just because of greater awareness and diagnosis. And as countries like India and China adopt a Western diet high in gluten rather than a rice-based one, the genes coding for gluten intolerance and coeliac disease are now interacting with the environment and revealing that this is a problem that impacts all ethnicities.

This is not to say gluten-free food is healthier – far from it. In an attempt to deal with the fundamental issue that gluten-free food lacks the protein literally responsible for keep a piece of bread from falling apart (ask any coeliac – gluten free bread has the miraculous ability to disintegrate in your hand), companies add more fat, sugar and additives like binding agents to make the products edible. Gluten gets its name from the Latin for ‘glue’, and replacing this in bread is like trying to build a brick house without cement: you have to think creatively.

Noticing that consumers perceive gluten free food to be ‘healthier’, manufacturers focus on designing effective packaging that creates a strong brand image and attracts the consumer’s eye. The language often highlights it as ‘plant-based’ with ‘no artificial colours’, and the companies name themselves to convey the impression of a natural, healthy diet, such as ‘Nature’s Store’, ‘Eat Natural’, ‘Eat Real’, ‘Ancient Harvest’ and ‘Nature’s Path’. Yet more often than not their products have the dreaded red warning signs for high sugar content, and not the ‘naturally occurring’ kind.

As someone who has probably cooked potato in every conceivable way possible, I welcome the innovation taking place in the free-from market as a result of more gluten-free consumers, regardless of their reason. And if you’ve read this with the knowledge that you experience mouth ulcers, fatigue, bloating, nausea or any other symptoms as listed on the NHS website under coeliac disease following gluten consumption, make sure you see your GP to check for coeliac disease. It could change your life, and might even save it.

As for me, I’ll be baking a gluten-free birthday cake this year – sorry Mary, but your Victoria Sponge just doesn’t make the cut.

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