Saturday, 14 July 2012

What's the point of gluten-free bread? Three reasons why gf substitutes are so important

Over in the UK, the question of gluten-free food on prescription has been big news (especially when our National Health System pays through the nose for it).One of the reactions I see most often is 'why do coeliacs need bread substitutes at all?' Here are a few sample comments from a BBC News article on the subject:

 I still fail to understand why bread and cakes are an essential dietary item?

I find it odd that people believe they need to eat bread at all. There are continents full of people who *never* eat bread.

People are just so faddy nowadays [...] Surely there is something cheap they can eat [if gluten-free products are expensive]? Baked beans or something

Bean cocktail by robbophotos, under CC Attribution licence
You can initially see the bare bones of an argument here. Why agonise over finding a gluten-free muffin that doesn't disintegrate in your hand? They're only muffins, eat something else. Why hanker for gluten-free bread when there are naturally gluten-free carbs and sources of fibre like brown rice or potatoes?

But then the baked beans comment had to go and ruin it all. That sneery implication that coeliacs should just be grateful for any old scraps. Sure, while you tuck into that cinnamon roll, baguette sandwich or cream cheese bagel, I'll just reach into my handbag for my emergency can of baked beans. Perhaps I'll even eat them cold as a punishment for daring to have such an inconvenient diet. Only someone 'faddy' about their food could possibly disagree!

I'm not going to delve into the sticky issue of gluten-free food on prescription just now. But I will give you my top three reasons why gluten-free substitutes for ordinarily wheaty food are a very good thing. 

Ice cream in neon by Joelk75, under CC Attribution Licence 
1. Food nourishes people's mental health, not just their bodies.

Do you remember your summer holidays as a child? I do; my parents took my brother and I to Wales, where we'd fight against the inevitably rainy weather by having fish and chips on the beach, building sand castles and choosing ice creams that dripped down the side of the cones as you ate them. These memories of innocent times are powerful, and those of us blessed with happy childhoods find a lot of comfort in them.

Having to follow a special diet can alienate you from your own memories and the culture you grew up in. You start feeling pretty ambivalent about that battered fish and chips when you know it might have been damaging your body all along. Those ice cream cones are a fuzzy memory you can never relive again. It's a huge emotional side-effect for coeliacs, knowing that a phase of your life and all of its associated flavours might be over.

Those waffle cones.
But it doesn't need to be that way. Gluten-free substitutes for these foods aren't going to save the world or boost your health - heck, they'll probably make you chubbier. I'd never suggest that your doctor should hand you gf ice cream cones as part of your prescription, but the fact that they exist is pretty damn wonderful. While I'm very happy with gelato in a cup, I did a little dance of glee when I discovered gluten-free waffle ice cream cones, and I got a giddy nostalgic hit when I ate one. It made me happy, it made me smile, it was an awful lot better than baked beans.

2. Gluten-free substitutes encourage culinary ingenuity.

I used to think you made a cake with flour, eggs, sugar and butter. Now I know you can make it with none of the above. Melted chocolate, pureed beetroot, pistachio nuts, grated carrots, courgettes, whole boiled oranges blitzed in the blender, mashed bananas, ground almonds... is your mouth watering yet? All of these have played a tasty part in my baking in recent years.

And this isn't a phenomenon just for the coeliac pack. Wheaty eaters also benefit from the creativity involved in making gluten-free substitutes. Plenty of my gluten-eating friends are partial to the richness of a flourless chocolate cake, a grainy polenta loaf, or that phenomenal parsnip, pear and salted caramel cake from London's Borough Market (I mention this one a lot). The love of a good cake - universal. Knowing a way to transform mangy beetroots into a moist chocolate cake? Priceless.

Gluten Free cheesecake by Slacker Mark, under CC Attribution licence
3. Gluten-free food isn't a punishment. 

Some people get really irritated by alternative foods. Creative substitution in food is seen as a 'hippie' fad, and it sparks a strange kind of protectionism in some people: Cakes aren't for you any more, take your rice crackers and begoneA friend once told me about an incident at her work Christmas party when the waiting staff came over with a plate, announcing, 'Gluten-free food for someone here?' and the (drunk) people around the table murmured, 'Urgh, gluten-free?!' They were actually annoyed that someone had dared to be different, even though it wasn't out of choice.

Well, guess what: coeliac disease isn't a curse. It's not a punishment for too many donuts in a past life, so there's no reason for us all to sit crying in a corner while we nibble a lettuce. Not having dietary requirements doesn't make you a hero who has earned those pancakes, any more than coeliac disease means you should rule out bread for life when perfectly good substitutes exist.

To the nay-sayers, tough luck: we coeliacs intend to have our cake, eat it, and lick out the frosting bowl when we're done. 


  1. Brilliant, thoughtful and wise post - really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Excellent post - agree 100%!

  3. Thank you so much for the comments, Alex G and Annie, it's good to hear I'm not alone in feeling this way!

  4. A bit belated here, but I remember reading those comments. That kind of self-righteous attitude that people like us should never--ever!--have anything that is less than spartan and wholesome infuriates me. And we should know our place. Pastries and breads are for good normal folks and not for the likes of us. We should be grateful for a bowl of rice, even though we live in a culture that is surrounded with baked goods. You are very right that our emotional needs matter too. Well put.

  5. Thank you for reading, @Mad Gluten Free Cat! Glad my post struck a chord. Sometimes when I bring out a gluten-free cake, bun or sandwich, I get a chorus of 'what, I thought you couldn't eat sandwiches!' and even 'eurgh, *gluten-free* cake?' Someone even told me lately that they 'hated' gluten-free cake because 'cake is just meant to have wheat flour in it'. The food protectionism is insane; I don't understand the motivation behind that attitude. Sigh.