The Telegraph published an article today, titled The Great Gluten-free Scam, and the writer’s shock and confusion at the fact that:
in a corner of my local, shabby Tesco, whole new ranges of biscuits, breads, cereal bars and even fish fingers have suddenly arrived, all stocked under the label “gluten-free”
A sure sign of the apocalypse if ever I saw one. The article is tedious to read as it cycles through tired out cliches at breakneck speed:
a niche product for hippies and those with coeliac disease… socialite Nicole Richie… Gwyneth Paltrow’s kids… Novak Djokovic now has his dog following it… every week another friend (usually one who’s been vegan and who’s done every diet from Atkins to the 5:2) serves me quinoa or macaroons.
It’s pretty ghastly stuff, having dreary friends who serve you macaroons, see? Because they aren’t doing it for the right reasons. They are doing it because they are flaky people who like to flit from diet to diet without concern for their poor friends. How dare they try something new?!
She goes on:
even carb-loving citizens of countries like Italy now demand gluten-free pasta and pizza
Is nothing sacred any more?!
Er actually, I think you’ll find that Italy has increased awareness of coeliac disease, as children are routinely screened for the disease before they start school. Some of the better gluten-free brands in Europe are produced in Italy, thank you very much, and much of their traditional cooking is also gluten-free. There’s actually much more to Italian cuisine than wheat. Ever heard of risotto, polenta, or amaretti? Sorry if that makes me sound like a trendy hippy.
She circles around the point but never quite gets to it:
The new ubiquity of gluten-free products certainly makes life much easier for sufferers of coeliac disease… but coeliacs make up only one in 100 of the population, while one in five of us is buying gluten-free products
Her outrage seems to come from the fact that non-coeliacs are buying gluten-free food. Of COURSE coeliacs are exempt from her outrage, they have a REAL disease, not like these fakey fakers.
As readers of my blog, you must have noticed how the gluten-free market has exploded in the last few years. And yes, more coeliacs are being diagnosed, but they still make up only about 5% of sales of gluten-free products. The reason us coeliacs have the choice we do is because of the gluten intolerant, and yes, the trendy dieters.
Let me put it another way, in Holland, no one has heard of going gluten-free unless they have coeliac disease. And the range of products reflects that – the only brands available in supermarkets here are Schär and a few Consenza products. Schär has some of the worst gluten-free bread I’ve ever tasted, but it keeps being stocked throughout Europe, as there is no other option for the consumer, and they have no choice but to buy it if they want basics such as bread.
The anti-gluten-free brigade really have it in for the gluten intolerant, largely because there’s no actual test for it, so it must be concluded that they are probably making up all their bloating, pain and discomfort. Attention seekers, amirite?
Nutritionist Ian Marber says: “We’re always looking for something to blame for everything that’s wrong in our lives and having a food intolerance is the holy grail. We can say: ‘It isn’t the fact that I lie flat on my back and eat cream cakes all day that made me fat, it’s the grilled aubergines I had for dinner last night. If I hadn’t eaten them I’d be size eight and 6ft 3in.’”
So not just attention seekers, but BIG FAT LAZY attention seekers. But seriously, if you’re eating cream cakes all day, maybe it’s a lactose issue, so get that checked out. 😉
The only proper diagnosis for wheat intolerance is a test called a food challenge, carried out in a hospital.
I would be interested in hearing from ANYONE who, having had coeliac disease ruled out, was actually offered a food challenge like this:
The patient is blindfolded and tested for wheat under controlled conditions, then monitored over three days to see if they develop any symptoms. Depending on which foods they react to, a food elimination programme is carried out under strict supervision.
For the most part this is something you are left to do by yourself at home. In fact, I was told to do this before I was even tested for coeliac disease. I would drop dead with surprise if they’d told me to spend 3 days in hospital to test for wheat intolerance.
Even products like humus, which have never contained gluten, are now being labelled “gluten-free” by canny shopkeepers, to make them more attractive to the health conscious.
Maybe, just maybe, they are being asked “is this gluten-free?” so often that they thought they’d put it on the label? Or perhaps they are a responsible manufacturer with regards to clear allergen labelling? I am well aware hummus shouldn’t have gluten in it, but I can bet your ass there is hummus out there which does. What exactly is the harm in labelling your products clearly? How is it a massive scam?
Oh right, the cost of these gluten-free foods. The author on the one hand looks down on the gluten-intolerant and those choosing to go gluten-free for health reasons, but on the other hand is very concerned that they are being ripped off:
A gluten-free label equates to a large mark up (though manufacturers argue that this is a result of higher production costs).Gluten-free Genius bread costs £3 a loaf in Tesco, compared with £1 for an ordinary loaf. Tesco’s Free From fusilli is £1.40, while a normal pack costs 95p.
Yes, gluten-free food is expensive. There is a much smaller market for them so manufacturers don’t benefit from economies of scale like large-scale producers do. The cost of raw gluten-free ingredients such as maize or buckwheat is significantly higher than for wheat – likely also because there is less demand. As easy as it is to immediately assume that everyone is out to rip you off, there is enough competition within gluten-free brands in the UK to drive prices down (I believe Tesco Free From bread products are some of the cheapest? Correct me if I’m wrong). No one is going to go into business unless there is profit to be made. The pursuit of profit does not automatically equal being ripped off as a consumer.
The author also points to the “backlash” against gluten-free food in the US, mentioning the article “Coeliac: the Trendy Disease for Rich, White People”, which I am not going to link to, but I shall link to Gluten Dude’s excellent take down of it. Over in America, gluten-free has taken an absolute beating, especially with regards to the myth (and subsequent unfunny jokes in film and on TV) that it is only rich white people who have food allergies or intolerances.
Unfortunately, the gluten-free community has even less tolerance for jokes than for pasta.
See what she did there? Only these no-sense-of-humour gluten-freers could fail to find that one funny.
The bottom line is, if Gwyneth Paltrow wannabes with plenty of cash want to spend their money on gluten-free products when they don’t need to, that’s fine by me. They are helping the economy, supporting small producers and hurting no one. We have to stop attacking people for their dietary needs, habits or preferences.
But if those with gluten-intolerance, self-diagnosed or not, are struggling to buy food for their family we should be supporting them, not criticising them for responding to their bodies by insinuating they are jumping on a bandwagon. Categorically stating that gluten-free food must be a scam because some rich and trendy people buy it certainly isn’t helping anyone.
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Alex Gazzola says
Lots of brilliance here – laughed a lot. Blogged on this too, but not a patch on this! Will link to it …
Eve & Faye says
Eve & Faye x
Sugar Spun Sisters – A blog about cosmetics, clothes & coeliac disease
the free from fairy says
Oooo…great post and I am all geared up for an online response to that pathetic ‘news’ article. Just to say here that our family contribute to those ‘stupid’ people who buy gluten free products when we dont need them. 3 out of 4 of us do not have coeliac disease. One 6 yr old girl does. What would that writer like us to do? Provide different food for our ‘different’ daughter to make sure she grows up feeling like a freak!?? Brilliant! Off I go to find that article! Thanks for drawing attention to it. I am a thoughly unamused member of the gluten community!
Nathan Drewett says
Beyond the usual media BS in this article, I note that they neglect to mention that wheat is to be avoided by IBS sufferers because of the high fructan content (see FODMAPs).
Of course, they’d know this if they asked a dietitian or a gastroenterologist. But they didn’t. They asked a *nutritionist*. Hence we have the ignorant leading the blind.
But hey, when you have an agenda to pursue, what do these inconvenient little medical details matter?
Alex Gazzola says
Feel I have to step in to defend Ian Marber, the nutritionist in question, who is not only a terrific nutrition professional, who I’ve met and interviewed a number of times, but is also a coeliac.
I think the point he was making is that some people think ‘intolerance’ before ‘healthy diet’. The first step to address must surely be to eat good stuff (not excluding wheat, gluten, dairy or anything else) – wholesome, home-cooked food. If you have that, and are still experiencing symptoms, then maybe it’s time to look into food sensitivity.
I do agree though that it’s a shame FODMAPs weren’t mentioned – but there’s only so much you can get into a newspaper / magazine piece – I have been there many, many times…
I’m pretty sure Julia Llewellyn Smith’s article in the Telegraph wasn’t targeting the 1% who are Coeliac’s. It was to highlight the 24% of people who are not coeliac’s who buy gluten free products and point out a few things regarding the industry.
Also, you say “The cost of raw gluten-free ingredients such as maize or buckwheat is significantly higher than for wheat – likely also because there is less demand”. Normally supply and demand works the other way around. If there is less demand for a product, the price is lower. Higher demand leads to a higher price. Julia was right to point out the higher prices.
The Happy Coeliac says
Yes, but she wasn’t targeting anyone, she was targeting “the gluten-free diet”. Articles like this only serve to help perpetrate certain myths about those on gluten-free diets. Yes, us coeliacs need to be gluten-free, but what about the approx 10% of people who are gluten intolerant and get pain and discomfort when they eat wheat. Do they deserve to be mocked because they’ve found that eating a certain way helps them feel better? I very much doubt that 24% of people buy gluten-free products knowingly.
While you are correct that when demand is high, prices can increase, but the point about the gluten-free ingredients is that the supply is so low (from historically low demand) that there simply isn’t the industrialised supply chain to cope with the global demand. Maize, buckwheat, quinoa etc have been popular in localised regions for a long time but these past few years have shown how quickly demand can rise, much faster than supply can keep up.
I understand the points you are making, but i don’t think there is anything wrong with highlighting some of the issues which were raised in the Telegraph. It’s useful to have a debate about the rapidly growing gluten free industry and as with anything, there are always going to be pros and cons. But it seems for some that with the gluten free diet, it’s all positive and there are no negatives, which seems a bit naive. I was just surprised by the reaction to the article, people seem be offended by it and are getting all defensive. The tone of the article was one of scepticism towards the industry. But overall i feel it was still good to highlight some of the points that were made.
I wouldn’t be here on your site, if it wasn’t for the the article in the Telegraph. Bringing more awareness to the gluten diet can only be a good thing.
Alex Gazzola says
Yes, it’s okay to question the gluten-free industry and prices – although the writer did not address why products actually are more expensive, such as costlier / rarer ingredients, and accounting for costs involved in allergen control. And why the concern over GF ‘invading’ supermarkets? – it’s hardly going to push out the wheaten stuff, is it? I agree it’s naive to think gluten-free food is all good and healthy, and agree with Ian Marber about the problems related to self-diagnosis, but there was scepticism towards the gluten free ‘community’ (her inverteds) as well – that they’re humourless for starters.
But things like quinoa, which is considered cheap food in south america should be cheaper here now and buckwheat is something which grows very quicky, it’s ripe in about 11 weeks (compared to something like asparagus, which takes 3 years from seed) should be cheaper too. The bread comparison (£3 and £1) was weak, i’ve often paid £3.50 for a loaf of sourdough or a good quality seeded bread. But the info about the Chorlewood Process was very interesting, i’d never heard about that before. That process needs to have more questions asked about it too.
Caroline Benjamin says
Great blog, I would also be interested to know which areas in the country are offering the test called a “food challenge”, carried out in a hospital! I found it difficult enough being tested for coeliac disease, when that was negative it was all in my mind! I am now going through a similar process with my son where we have to make the elimination suggestion with no support! Budgets are tight enough for allergy testing cannot see many NHS hospitals offering 3 days of blind challenge testing!
Born Bendy says
Hi, Caroline, you need to see if any hospitals near you do the “hydrogen breath test” due to the usual symptoms, a few hrs max on each test. I had to go to UCHL but that was due to having a genetic condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – Hypermobility type (but waited decades to get correct diagnoses) which causes many conditions inc g.i ones. I tested positive for Fructose Malabsorbtion (as mentioned above) same test (has to be done on different days) for lactose & if positive on both they need to check (use glucose) to rule out bacterial overgrowth normally treated by anti biotics.
So I was put on Low FODMAP diet, prev I already realised & advised gluten was a problem, then I slowly started fodmap diet carefully before hospital dietician started it, as what was the point in waiting & suffering knowingly eating foods that were making me iller. The dietician did say they have taught other hospitals it too. It is complex & difficult untill you get used to so you do need a dietician to advise & when I saw them it wasn’t quite as restrictive as I thought & some are allowed in small portions, especially if neg on fructose test diet can still help those neg. So my g.i symptoms have eased, everyone is different with differing sensitivies to different foods. Apart from wheat other prob fodmaps are onions & garlic which are in lots of things these days. The worst thing for me is having a life changing condition (no cure)= less income, this diet is just a part of the limited management of it & still not being able to get GF on prescription. So I also welcome to increase in sales of GF as they have started to do offers, but please also remember to make LOW FODMAP GF too. Could help the majority with ibs type symptoms. But please consult a gp, ask for a referal if needs be, just do some homework & see who people recommend on forum’s I found mine through “Inspire”. All the best & wish you all supportive Dr’s.
Great read. I agree with you on many points but I also liked the humour of Marber in the article, but he is Coeliac himself so maybe that is why. I had to laugh at the original article. I couldn’t help it (there were so many underhanded comments trying to prove a point) but then perhaps it is just the frustration of it all. There is nothing I hate more than asking for gluten free and getting sideways looks because I am in my 20s and blonde. No I am not doing this by choice, this is a treatment for a disease. For this reason perhaps the refuting of these articles is something we (deglutenous) should be more proactive in. Thanks again.
Siobhan Norton says
I really enjoyed your response to yet another ill-informed article – basically a rant about the latest ‘trend’ without doing any research into how many people are actually advised to go gluten-free. I am coeliac but also have MS, and my doctors told me the coeliac diet is also recommended for MS sufferers. And she labels us hippies!
Just read this wonderful comment! I totally agree with you (and wrote something similar in my e-mail). Unfortunately there’s a lot of bad information, like this article, that’s creating problems to people with REAL disease. The gluten free diet is becoming, somewhere, popular because when people hear the word “DIET” they think that they can lose weight. Hahaha!! In fact, the GF products (biscuits, cakes, etc) may usually give the exact opposite effect since to make them taste better they put more sugar.
I was very ill a couple years ago for months on end (tested negative for Coeliac) and was referred to a nutritionist to try an elimination diet. The process as she explained was one that would have taken MONTHS. Two weeks eliminating all dairy, then reintroduce for 3 weeks. Then two weeks of eliminating all wheat, then reintroduce for 3 weeks, etc. Needless to say, I declined. I would definitely have opted for ‘3 days in hospital’ but that was certainly never on offer to me! The whole Telegraph article stinks of reactionary nonsense based on an aversion to anything that seems “trendy”. I would say the only real problem with Gluten-free “dieters” is, as you have pointed out before, that restaurants and companies don’t concern themselves with trace Gluten, leaving real sufferers vulnerable to illness. Where is the author’s concern for that?!
The Happy Coeliac says
Agreed, well said!