Lea is back with me again this week talking about all things gluten free. If you didn’t catch Part 1 of this series then click here to have a read as we explored the issues of attitudes towards gluten free and coeliacs, and basically whether me and Lea can still be friends…
But I want to move on to the transformation in recent years of what’s available in the market for people going gluten free.
Mainstreaming gluten free - a Coeliac's dream, right?
V: Lea you recently wrote a really brilliant article for Health Bloggers Community about free from going more mainstream. So you must be super chuffed that gluten free (and other free from) products have become more mainstream and accessible… right?
L: So, I’ve touched on this in my article, but the rising popularity of free from and how I feel about it becoming more mainstream (from a Coeliac perspective) is complex and at times conflicted.
It is wonderful that there is such a wide range of products available in the free from category now because it does make it more accessible for people with dietary requirements to be included in meals. And it’s wonderful that some supermarkets are starting to integrate free from foods into the “normal” areas of the shop in which those products would be found rather than having a “special” or segregated area for them.
However, one of the biggest issues with our food culture/environment today is that people just don’t understand what goes into making their food and what genuinely works for them. I feel like there’s a risk that people interpret ‘free from’ as being the healthier choice without doing their own research or reading and critiquing labels.
There are so many problems with food made in factories instead of in kitchens. I know that we all occasionally need a helping hand because we get so little time in our culture to focus on nourishment. But when things are made in factories for big corporations, they tend not to be for the benefit of anything other than profits.
V: I feel very lucky to have grown up being encouraged to cook for myself and know what all the ingredients were and how to make tasty dishes for myself. It makes having a “restricted” diet so much easier when you are familiar with things you could switch in and out. But I appreciate not everyone’s in that position with the time, confidence and desire to prepare food from scratch – actually I designed my latest recipe for Mix and Match noodles inspired by exactly this.
However I hadn’t really thought about companies actually profiteering from gluten free products…
L: Yep, ‘Free From’ is big money and whilst there are lots of reasons to use gluten free products without being a confirmed Coeliac, the problem is that people are often paying kind of extortionate amounts for Free From products. Sometimes they can be anything up to three times as much as “normal” products!
V: I just looked it up and the global market for gluten-free products is anticipated to reach a market value of $5,279 million by 2022... woaaaah....
L: Scary huh. I think some big businesses are seeing this as an opportunity to make more money from people with dietary needs, rather than using economies of scale and making free-from foods cheaper.
V: Three times the price as normal products is totally outrageous. But maybe if there weren’t so many people going gluten free because it’s ‘trendy’ then this wouldn’t be such an issue…? The idea of companies profiteering from those needing to go gluten free is seriously depressing…
L: It’s especially an issue for people with Coeliac Disease as prescriptions for gluten free foods are rapidly being stamped out. This is something that never really bothered me as I had a false negative on my diagnosis so have never been entitled to prescription foods. But recently I’ve become aware of the problem this poses for those vulnerable people at risk of food poverty. There is no pill a Coeliac can take to manage their autoimmune disease and the gluten free diet is the only “medication.”
Without the accessibility of gluten free foods on prescription a lot of people aren’t going to be able to afford to buy expensive gluten free foods. And before anyone argues about the cost to the NHS (as brandished across some of the tabloids), I’ve seen the genuine financial costs and benefits of providing gluten free foods to patients in my area and it pales into insignificance when you look at some of the costs of treatment of other diseases.
V: Oh my goodness that's horrendous. I’d never really thought about it as I’m in the privileged position of being someone who chooses to be gluten free, rather than needing to be. Is there a campaign group or something people can do about this?
L: We’re back to my favourite resource, Coeliac UK for this one really. They’ve been campaigning and working with the Department of Health in a consultation on gluten free prescriptions. Whilst the consultation is now closed you can still get involved by writing to your MP. All of the details (including a letter template) are available here.
V: Totally doing that, thank you!
L: I’ve always felt some embarrassment at getting special attention in restaurants but that doesn't even compare when I imagine myself being in need of the services of a food-bank. I’m so grateful that I can try all the gluten free foods out there in the market and be choosy about which ones I eat. I’ve got a list of in-demand foods from my local food bank and will be supporting them to try and plug the gap a little bit by donating gluten free versions.
V: We're in such a privileged position with money to choose what we eat, it's so important to remember those that don't have such a luxury, especially when it comes to genuine medical need.
I’m going to try and investigate this a bit more when I’m settled in Dublin and see if there’s anything I can do. I have no idea if it’s a similar issue in Ireland actually… health care is completely different there of course with no NHS!
This is all making me feel quite guilty about my choice to be gluten free. And maybe guilt it something we should discuss.
With the Free From aisle getting bigger are you worried that gluten free = healthy in some people's minds? Like they walk down that aisle and think it's "better" to buy their bread and cakes there than the "bad" standard bakery?
There seems to be this halo effect of munching on a gluten free muffin rather than the guilt of eating a gluten-laden one…
L: Oh abso-frigging-loutely I worry about this! Have you read the ingredients in some of these gluten free products?! Recognise many of them as foods?
It takes time to get confident with the abundance of foods available to you on a gluten free (or otherwise “restricted” diet) but I’ve found that “gluten free” doesn’t really work for me. Instead I feel amazing on a whole-foods, naturally gluten free diet. I think if people are going gluten free to be healthier then they should start with naturally gluten free whole-foods rather than processed store bought products.
V: I am loving the Coeliac that says "gluten free doesn't really work for me"!
But I couldn’t agree with this more. I think I realised very quickly doing a 'yeast free' diet that actually the combo with gluten free together with kicking processed products and free sugars was what was really making me feel healthier. It wasn’t necessarily candida nonsense or “poisonous” gluten.
Because I had the guidelines even if I had gone to the Free From aisle I would be checking labels and realising I couldn’t have most of what was there anyway - I even found supermarket soup had sugar and yeast added! Instead I loaded up my trolley with fresh fruit, veg, new grains and oils to make something with, which inherently made my diet healthier.
L: Totally. Free-from foods are, alas, often packed full of fillers and stickers to get them to behave more like “normal” foods. No one can live healthily on gluten free bread and cake alone. If you have a basket full of gluten free products and nothing else, you are likely to wind up devoid of nutrients and hyped up on refined sugars (how else are they going to make those filler/GMO/refined products taste “normal”?!).
V: Case in point: I've seen a lot of people slamming this article on goop.com recently saying you should cut out gluten but Hey! Eat these pricey snack bars I'm making!
L: Unfortunately there is no magic pill quick fix to living your most healthful life and if you aren’t prepared to invest some time in doing your research and preparing a lot of your own food then you will find it difficult to maintain good health long term.
“I think if people are going gluten free to be healthier that they should start with naturally gluten free wholefoods rather than processed store bought products”
Lea @ Can Eat Attitude
I think the health halo effect probably stems from two things:
- People think “free from” means free-from anything deemed “naughty” or “bad”
- A bit of a cult of celebrity has emerged around some high profile wellness folks who advocate gluten free for all
V: Eurgh, the dreaded guilt and shame with “bad” foods… I’m sure there are many people who stick to a gluten free diet because they think now that gluten is “bad.” But if they were asked to explain then I wonder how many would be able to give an answer?!
I’ve really been thinking about this with my own attitude to gluten and now if questioned why I want the gluten free option I can say “because personally I find it makes me feel better / reduces some nasty symptoms I was experiencing before. But I’m not allergic!”
L: I think a lot of it is a sort of “guilty by association” thing, people are homing in on gluten because they are cutting out lots of processed foods and feeling better. But really who isn’t going to thrive on a wholesome, homemade diet?!
Wow we've covered a lot again! And people can always read more about this in your HBC Magazine article.
Next time I totally want to know what it’s like in your kitchen! Fancy talking us through your favourite meals and cooking disasters?!
L: You would be most welcome to pop inside the Can Eat kitchen and have a snoop around my cupboards – I probably won’t be serving up any baked treats though…I'm a terrible baker!
Lea Tierney is a freelancer and passionate food nerd helping others discover their Can Eat Attitude by sharing how she lives abundantly (not restrictedly) with Coeliac Disease and a vegan lifestyle. Check out her website for recipes, information on her workshops and if you're interested in the gluten free life a little hub of all Lea's articles on the subject.