Tag Archives: gluten free

The gluten-free prescriptions row: so where are my doughnuts?

I’ve been a little busy the last few months with other projects, so haven’t been posting here so much. However, with the recent spate of sensationalist articles courtesy of our dear, well-informed friends over at the Daily Mail, I feel compelled to respond.

First we had the article that claimed that gluten free foods on prescription are costing the NHS £116m a year. The correct figure is actually £28m according to Coeliac UK, who wrote this letter to refute the Mail’s claims and demand a correction (which they did). Turns out the GP quoted in the article was mis-quoted as well.

That wasn’t enough to make the Mail shut up about coeliacs bankrupting the NHS. Far from withdrawing with good grace, they trotted out Dr Max Pemberton (who is not, by the way, an expert on coeliac disease) who wrote  another diatribe today. I don’t know where Pemberton is getting his information from here about all these NHS-funded gluten free cake sprees, but what I want to know is where the hell are my doughnuts? I never saw those on any prescription lists. Is doctors’ pay so bad these days that Pembers is stashing bulk supplies of gluten-free contraband to sell on the black market to coeliacs desperate for a sugar fix?

The usual “food intolerances are bunkum” stuff appears, citing the obligatory anecdote about a “friend” who claims an intolerance to something but then will go right ahead and eat something they like containing the supposed offending ingredient, in this case chocolate biscuits when claiming a lactose intolerance.

OK Max, I kind of agree with you on that one – it annoying. But your chocolate biscuit-munching friend wouldn’t be able to get anything on prescription, so why the hell does your anecdote about her stupidity appear here?

Just to make it crystal bloody clear to Mail readers and anyone else suffering from chronic ignoramusitis, you can’t get prescriptions for gluten free food if you have not been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease. People with gluten intolerances (leaving out the debate about whether intolerances are real, imagined or otherwise) DO NOT GET THEM. I repeat, DO NOT GET THEM. You cannot go to a kinesiologist or have skin/hair/toenail clipping analysis and then demand gluten free food from the NHS.

If you’re coeliac, it’s a postcode lottery as to what you get or whether you get anything at all. Some of it is just so damned awful that those of us with the money to choose won’t bother with it and we’ll go and buy the brands we do like. But given the increased cost and lower availability of gluten free foods, it’s vital to be able to get some staples if you are on a low income or live in a remote area, as Alex Gazzola’s response to the Mail farce points out. And it isn’t our fault that the companies supplying this stuff charge the NHS an arm and a leg. Maybe all the NHS Procurement departments need to join up and negotiate some better deals.

Not to let the Mail off the hook, but there is misinformation coming from Coeliacsville as well. Some coeliacs talk about gluten-free bread and substitute products being “medicine” – well they sure as hell aren’t, but unfortunately giving them on prescription gives this impression. Most of these subsitute products, even if they are fortified, are still full of added sugar and additives to make the shelf life longer. They are often higher in calories than their wheat counterparts. Really, we would be better off getting those nutrients from naturally gluten-free foods and having gluten-free subs as more of an occasional treat. I’m just as partial to the odd gluten-free Genius croissant as anyone, but it sure doesn’t take a genius to work out that they’re not something you should be eating every morning for breakfast.

I saw one coeliac Mail commenter claim that coeliacs don’t absorb nutrients properly and that’s why we need the prescription stuff. While that’s true of undiagnosed coeliacs, most will regain this after a period of time on a GF diet, unless you’re one of the unlucky refractory coeliacs. GF substitute products are not magic foods that can overcome malabsorption – if you are not absorbing nutrients, you won’t absorb them no matter which way you take them in and you will need further treatment.

It’s a bugbear of mine that there isn’t sufficient support and nutrition education for coeliacs post-diagnosis, which leads to some of the above misconceptions. It’s a shame that a diagnosis of CD isn’t seen as an opportunity to help people lead healthier lives, educating about proper nutrition, even gluten-free cooking classes, rather than just shoving a prescription for some nasty white “bread” at us and waving us off, thankful that’s another patient off the gastroenterology list.

Gluten Free Bakers Series part 1 – Bakes Just 4 U

Coeliac disease has not in the slightest bit curbed my love of cake – both baking it myself and sampling the culinary delights of others.

Gluten free baking can be a bit hit and miss though. I applaud the efforts of a lot of establishments that are trying to offer something for coeliacs, but there are a lot of well-intentioned mistakes. I was in a bakery the other day where they offered me a yummy looking chocolate and almond torte, but then proceeded to use the same cake slice to get it out as they’d just used to handle a gluten-containing cake. Epic fail.

With a gluten free only bakery though, no such worry. I’ve selected three to sample and to review on the blog over the next couple of months, so wherever you are in the UK, you should never be far from a decent gluten free cake!

I heard about Bakes Just 4 U on the Coeliacs in the UK Facebook group. A member posted a picture of a gluten free French fancy, and I just HAD to have one. I used to have a bit of a weakness for Mr Kipling fondant fancies, back in the days BC (Before Coeliac). Yes, I know they are mostly sugar with a bit of flavouring and colouring for good measure, but they really are good. So I was curious to see what these were like.

I chose the strawberry ones, and here they are in all their glory.

BJ4U Fondant 1

Of course, this neat little pile in the box didn’t last long…..and it wasn’t long before I cut into the mini battenberg slabs as well. Another childhood favourite that coeliac disease has robbed me of, so when I saw battenburg on the list, that was straight in my shopping cart. I also chose these items as I wouldn’t usually bake them myself, due to the fiddly processes involved, which are time consuming, and difficult when you only have a small kitchen.

fondant and battenburg cut

The French fancies were nice for a novelty. I liked that they didn’t quite look perfect, because it gave them a hand-made quality that you would never get with Mr Kipling! The sponge was fantastic – moist, with a good kick of vanilla, but the icing was not particularly pleasant. I don’t know if it was the flavouring in the fondant, but there was an almost alcoholic aftertaste to it. The buttercream filling was nice, but I could have done with a little more of it to balance the sponge and the icing. I am aware from watching Bake Off however just how difficult these little beauties are, so overall, I think these were a good job, considering they are gluten free.

The battenburg, however is a triumph of gluten free culinary art. Fantastic sponge texture and taste, marzipan not too thick, and enough jam filling for it to be satisfyingly moist. This I would definitely buy (and happily eat) again. It would be fantastic for a gluten free afternoon tea. Even my non-coeliac partner agreed this was a fine slab of cake, and that he would not have known that it was gluten free if he hadn’t been told.

Battenburg

The cakes were good value, at £6 for 6 of the mini slabs and £4.50 for a pack of 6 fondant fancies. You do have to pay for postage on top, unless you are lucky enough to live in Nottingham and be able to get them from there, but if you are willing to pay the premium to get some cake landing on your doorstep, it’s a pretty welcome surprise to find it there when you come home from work.

I would definitely order again from this bakery, and there is plenty more to try!

After the fray

I published an article on Monday on the Guardian Comment is Free, on my personal take on the new allergy laws. As a coeliac, it’s something I welcome, as I said in the article. But boy, was there some backlash. One chef even emailed me personally with a link to his blog where he had trashed me and my piece (yep, I know – creepy) and then proceeded to make derogatory comments on Twitter. I do regret that my article didn’t provide enough clarity that my mention of Michel Roux Jr. (as opposed to Albert, who did sign the Telegraph letter) was due to a BBC Food and Drink feature that I’d written about on this blog last year. I saw the Telegraph letter as a continuation of the same dismissive attitude towards those with allergies and illnesses, which is why I made the link.

However, with hindsight, I can see that neither I nor the editors made that clear enough (particularly with the inclusion of a massive photo of Michel Roux Jr!) and I left myself open to accusations of being sloppy or not checking facts. Even when I’d done my “below the line” response and the Guardian had amended the article to mention Albert, rather than Michel, some people just couldn’t let it go. I’m not going to expose the person in question – it’s not my style to trash individuals on a public forum, I’ll leave that to those who don’t have any journalistic ethics. But it has taught me something about resilience, and it has certainly taught me to try and look at what I write with a more dispassionate eye.

Sometimes, as a writer you can get so caught up in things, particularly when you’re passionate about your subject and it affects you personally, that you forget to look at your work with a reader’s eye. As an editor, I’m used to doing this, but it’s harder to do it with your own work.

Now I’ve been on the sharp end, I’m more inclined to be sympathetic with other journalists. We’re human (something I wonder if those people who leave the nastier, more personal comments and tweets actually remember) and we do make mistakes, we don’t always get it right. That’s why having a world below the line is a good thing – it keeps us accountable.

I do engage below the line, because I think it’s part of the deal nowadays, a journalist can’t pretend to know everything and be the last word. I think I’ve got a bit more sympathy with the industry now as well, mainly from reading some of the more reasonable comments and accounts from chefs, servers and restauranteurs and hearing their side.

Yes, I think that some of the celebrity chefs who signed that letter are still being rather precious over it, but I can’t deny that for the ordinary restaurant owner, the new regs might be a bit scary. Nobody wants to get sued, and the vast majority of decent professionals would not want to make someone ill. Although I do think there are still some deniers out there who would happily sneak flour in the food of someone who asks for gluten free, just to prove a point, and that’s why this debate needs to be had. It’s not a bad thing that it’s all coming out in the open – better that than ongoing seething resentment on the part of chefs and diners alike.

Gluten free and vegetarian at the Wildmoor Oak, Bromsgrove

On Sunday, we were down in Bromsgrove visiting my partner’s mum for her 60th birthday. She had chosen the Wildmoor Oak, a local pub just outside their village of Catshill, for a Sunday lunch.

I’ve been to the Wildmoor Oak before, and knew they had some gluten free options, but eating out suddenly got a lot harder for me now I stopped eating meat. The Oak also does fantastic Caribbean food, so I was hoping that there would at least be something on there I could sample, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Tobago Medley, which is like a Caribbean bean stew with spices and cooked in coconut milk and served with rice and peas, was absolutely fantastic – they did it for me with gluten free bread instead of traditional hardo bread as well. The dish was perfectly seasoned, had a nice bite (and you can add Encona hot pepper sauce if you want to add some extra heat) and the rice and peas perfectly cooked. The only thing I would say is that it didn’t need the salad – particularly not plain, undressed lettuce leaves just stuck on the side of the plate. The Caribbean dishes speak for themselves.

As excellent as the dish was (and reasonably priced, too) it was the only dish on the menu that fitted a gluten free and vegetarian diet. There was a jerk halloumi option, but for some reason, the jerk dishes are not gluten free – I’m a little nonplussed by that, because I make jerk dishes at home myself, and the marinade recipes I use to make it from scratch use no gluten containing ingredients. I’ve also found plenty of gluten free jerk marinade and sauce options in the shops, so it is pretty easy to make or find gluten free jerk sauce. The other possibility is that the sauce contains barley malt vinegar – because this is made from barley, there is some confusion about whether coeliacs can eat it, but in fact, according to Coeliac UK, yes, we can – the fermentation process removes the gluten, making it safe to eat in the small quantities that we usually would do, such as putting vinegar on your fish and chips, or used in a condiment like sauce or pickles. A lot of restaurants don’t know this, as the information doesn’t really seem to have disseminated very well. Understandably, too, I’m sure a lot of restaurant owners would prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to coeliac guests, and there is also a legal requirement to state that the product contains barley, which can be confusing.

Overall though, I applaud the Wildmoor Oak for providing good, clear menu information, giving different types of options (Caribbean as well as normal pub fare) and having staff who were able to explain how a dish is adapted for a gluten-free diner. Keep up the good work!

Vegetarianism, I hate you.

Since my “vegucation” a week ago I have not eaten any meat or fish. I’ve discovered that Waitrose Indian Bhaji burgers are a perfectly good Friday fast food dish – think a cross between an onion bhaji and a vegetable pakora, grilled and served in a gluten free roll with lettuce, tomato and Holy Cow Bombay ketchup. I made a vegetarian risotto with asparagus, courgette, peas and celery that even my committed carnivore partner really liked, and I nearly fell over with shock when he said it didn’t need bacon. I’ve made some yummy veggie pizzas using these fantastic herby pizza bases from Venice Bakery – gluten free AND vegan, no less. No animals remotely harmed in the creation thereof, and they taste great, as did the topping of grilled artichokes, black olives and Peppadew spicy peppers.

But the novelty has worn off now. I want a steak, pretty badly. However, I have yet to decide if I am actually going to have one.

The thing is, it would be an easy decision, if a) the vegetarian food I’ve been finding and making had been terrible and b) I hadn’t found that my body has responded so well to a vegetarian diet.

The second one, in particular, is irritating, because I hadn’t thought it would be the case at all. I’ve gone Paleo before, with some success, particularly in the weight loss department, and Paleo doctrine dictates that vegetarianism is unhealthy. I was pretty sold on that for a while, and I ate a lot, and I do mean a LOT, of meat. How many people are going to say no to a diet that legitimizes bacon? I sure as hell wasn’t. Bacon is great. It smells great, and it tastes great. And eating bacon and losing weight? Sign me up.

However, Paleo was hard to follow, and expensive, because to give Paleo philosophy its due, it does advocate organic or at least free range, pasture-raised meat and eggs (dairy is a no-no). But high-welfare meat, whilst if you are going to eat meat, is the best way of doing it, is much more expensive than the factory farmed flabby antibiotic-ridden stuff. And I ran into problems with Paleo in the gut department, the details of which I will spare you – suffice to say, if you have strictures, there actually is such a thing as too much protein. I also had a serious low blood sugar problem on Paleo, and I couldn’t manage any exercise without feeling like I was going to pass out. And I was a little skeptical with regard to all this stuff about grains being soooooo bad for you. Gluten? Yep, sold, that’s my enemy number one. Sugar? No brainer. But rice? Rice? Really? I’ve been to rural China, Vietnam and Cambodia. They live on the stuff, and I don’t think I ever saw an obese person around those parts. They don’t eat much meat either, because it’s too expensive, unless you catch it yourself, or you develop a taste for deep fried insects, which I didn’t. I lost weight there, living off a lot of rice, a lot of veg, fresh fruit, and a bit of meat, fish or tofu when it was around. So I don’t buy this theory that rice is evil and must be destroyed.

Following a vegetarian diet for the past week has not only improved my energy levels, reduced my joint pain (painkillers required only 3 days out of 7) and the stiffness I get in my hands and feet in the mornings, I’ve even hit on the Holy Grail – a vast improvement in dysfunctional gut behaviour, even necessitating a reduction in the medication I take to keep everything working. That is seriously worth its weight in tofu, and it’s definitely enough to keep me motivated, at least for now, to carry on with it.

Don’t get me wrong – I am definitely motivated to follow a vegetarian diet and reduce my consumption of animal products in general because I don’t want to support factory farming or cruelty to animals, and I am also concerned about the environmental impact – and in turn, the impact on people, because you can’t screw up the environment without screwing things up for the people who live there. All that is good, and noble, and I am 100% in support of veggies and vegans for whom this is enough motivation to master their taste for bacon. In fact, brain scans of vegetarians and vegans have shown that they may be more compassionate than their omnivorous counterparts – but I wonder what came first? There’s a chicken and egg theory here – do vegetarians and vegans become such because they feel more compassion to begin with, or does being vegetarian or vegan increase feelings of compassion? Are certain types of individuals more likely to become vegetarian or vegan, or could anybody develop this heightened sensitivity, if they were to be vegetarian or vegan for long enough?

I suspect for a lot of people, there needs to be more motivation than just the squeamishness factor around killing animals for food. I will admit that I am possibly one of these people, and that I probably also need the health benefits factor to keep me motivated to stay off the bacon. Without the fact that I feel pretty good on it, I’m not sure I’d stay motivated enough. It’s not that I want to kill animals – I really don’t, but being a coeliac vegetarian living with a meat-loving, eats-anything partner, that’s going to be pretty difficult. Sharing food together is powerful, and if I can no longer bond with my guy over a rack of BBQ ribs, I at least want to know that there’s a payoff. The trade, at the moment, is a flatter stomach, less pain and cramping, less bathroom trauma, and moving around easier – that, I can trade an 8oz ribeye for, and he can probably deal with me being one of those knowing that my health is better for it.

Damn you, vegetarianism. Why did you have to end up being so darn good for me and give me absolutely zero good excuses to go back to eating steak?

A Vegucation

It was a pretty hard sell to get me watching two of the hardest-hitting documentaries out there exploring our dietary choices, their impact on the animal kingdom and the planet. I might well be a bleeding-heart, card carrying leftie with a soft spot for the underdog, but I’m also a serious foodie. Despite the fact that I’ve had to give up my nemesis, gluten, it hasn’t dampened my passion for good food, cooking, and yep, eating. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch anything that might have a further impact on my diet, any more than being diagnosed with coeliac disease already has. Being said bleeding-heart leftie type, and bear in mind I’m usually hiding behind the sofa at fictional film violence, I knew there was a high likelihood that I’d be profoundly affected by watching both Earthlings and Vegucated, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. I’d been vegetarian in my late teens and early twenties, which did have some ethical grounding, but was more about wanting to be different and a bit edgy. I’ve always known I didn’t like the idea of killing animals for food, but since the whole process of doing so is kept so remote from the end consumer, I’ve never really had to stare it in the face. Vacuum-packed trays of meat in the supermarket don’t really resemble their original form, do they, so it’s pretty easy to distance yourself.

I agreed to watch these documentaries after a conversation at work with a volunteer who is a committed vegan. I work in a conservation centre, and, due to the fairly high proportion of passionate environmentalists I work with, inevitably there are also quite a few vegetarians and vegans, more than I used to encounter in my previous corporate office job. I was quite impressed by this particular person’s approach to talking about veganism – not at all preachy, or proselytizing, as I had feared, but more of the attitude that people should get all the facts and make an informed decision about their diets. We discussed some other documentaries and books that had influenced our attitudes towards food, such as Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, and during the course of the conversation, I somehow agreed to watch these two documentaries that he told me had had such an effect on him as to inspire him to move from omnivore with doubts about the ethics of the food industry to a complete eschewing of any animal products at all.

Earthlings in particular is a no-holds-barred look at American factory farming, where the very concept of animal husbandry is completely absent. Sick, injured and dying animals are not treated, but tossed out like garbage, left to suffer and die, and it’s only the lucky ones that might meet a quicker end from a bolt gun. Animals are, without doubt, not treated as living beings, but as commodities, and I found it disturbing in the extreme how people employed to care for them could bear to inflict pain and suffering on them, or be immune to witnessing it. I know we’ve been hunting, killing and eating animals since time immemorial, but there’s a bit of a difference between hunting a woolly mammoth in the wild, and capturing said mammoth, keeping it in a cage, forcing it to breed more mammoths and subjecting them to sickness, painful procedures, dirty and cramped living conditions, and traumatic slaughter.

Whilst in the UK, we don’t have the same scale of factory farming, and some of the cruellest practices are not permitted here, I don’t think that the farmers of my grandparents’ generation would recognise the kind of farming we are doing now. Midland Pig Producers have been trying to construct a large-scale piggery and biogas plant in Foston, Derbyshire, for several years now, fighting tenacious local opposition. Although they plan to also produce biogas from the waste and minimise environmental impact, and also not to carry out mutilations such as teeth clipping and tail docking, the pigs at Foston would never see the light of day. Having seen the images of factory farming in both Earthlings and Vegucated, I firmly believe that we should resist any further move towards intensification, both for animal welfare reasons, and the environmental impact. One of the things I’d always felt about the idea of being vegetarian or vegan was that it was a bit pointless, as no matter whether I ate meat or not, other people still would, so the demand would still be there. Organisations such as Compassion in World Farming are campaigning to change some of the attitudes towards factory farming, and looking at the true cost of cheap meat. Should the monetary price of meat actually reflect the environmental cost and the sacrifice of life involved in producing it? Arguably, yes.

Vegucated at least had some gentle humour, in amongst the serious messages, and I needed it after an hour and a half of the emotional rollercoaster ride of Earthlings. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson plucks three ordinary New Yorkers from their meat-and-cheese-lovin’ lives and gets them to try out veganism for size. 6 weeks, several veggie burgers, two rescued chickens and a trip to a deserted slaughterhouse later, it was interesting to see that none of the participants wanted to go back to eating meat, although one compromised on vegetarianism.

In New York, of course, you won’t find too many problems getting good vegan food. I’ve been to California a couple of times, and had no problems there as a veggie, either, and in Berkeley I ate some of the best vegan and vegetarian food I’ve ever had (thank you, Herbivore the Earthly Grill). However, none of Vegucated‘s participants had any food allergies or intolerances, and none of them were coeliac. I have enough trouble here eating out as a coeliac, but a coeliac vegan? Heads up, trendy New Yorkers – this is God’s own country of Yorkshire, and it’s sacrilege enough to have to leave Yorkshire puddings off the plate, but the beef as well?

I don’t exactly know what my long-term actions will be as a result of watching these two very powerful and informative documentaries, but I am certainly not feeling much like tucking into a steak, in the immediate aftermath. I’ll happily come out and say that I like meat, but some of the issues raised here are ones that I don’t think I can continue to ignore, particularly the environmental ones. I don’t want to see Derbyshire drown in pig shit, like the area around the Ohio piggery featured in Earthlings, to put it quite crudely. And frankly, I’m confused by the labelling in the supermarkets – free range, Red Tractor, Freedom Food, outdoor bred – no matter what the label, I still can’t guarantee that the pig that supplied my bacon wasn’t kicked and abused by unqualified, unsupervised slaughterhouse workers, and that it was really rendered senseless before being hoisted by one leg on a hook and having a knife stuck in its throat. And before we condemn the workers too much, we should also remember that this dangerous work often attracts low-paid migrant labour, and in the USA, a lot of illegal immigrants – who have little recourse to any employment rights in a dangerous job with high rates of injury. And it’s not just the slaughterhouses – think of what it would be like to have to work in an intensive chicken shed, the stench of the ammonia from the chicken droppings burning your lungs and eyes. I am leaning towards the feeling that if I wouldn’t be willing to do any of that, then I’m not sure I should be eating the products of that system.

A rude awakening for the confirmed foodie – definitely don’t watch either of these if you’re wanting to enjoy your next bacon sandwich.