Gluten free bread: is it really so bad?

Investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman's Bad Food Britain is a brilliant book: a devastating critique of much about what is wrong with our country's diet and attitudes towards food which, almost ten years after publication, is still relevant and valid. Since, I have tried to make a point of reading what she writes, and although I don't always agree with her, she is consistently one of the most thought provoking commentators on what we eat.

Today's Sunday Times The Dish food supplement carries a short article by her on gluten-free bread. Blythman is a staunch critic of 'Big Food', processed food, industrially produced food ... call it what you will - so it's not a surprise that it's a bit of an expose' of the quality of what we might find in 'free from' supermarket aisles.

It's the ingredients which are the focus of the attack: hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose, calcium propionate, xanthan gum, transglutaminase enzymes and their like, which add important functionality - such as preservation or structure - to breads. 'Chemical' sounding names may sound scary, but aren't necessarily: unless you wish to alarm yourself about the several pints of dihydrogen monoxide in your body, or avoid all-natural eggs thanks to their chemistry-set ingredients.

Elsewhere, she rightly outs the dubious practice of adding treacle or burnt sugar to breads to colour them a healthy brown, but doesn't really tackle the fat or calorie content of many mass-produced GF breads, which are higher than their gluten-containing counterparts, on the whole.

Andrew Whitley, author of Bread Matters, is a quoted fellow cynic: arguing that GF bread companies are exploiting those who mistakenly perceive gluten free as de facto 'healthier' by charging inflated prices. But the false perception of most gluten-free bread as a health food is not necessarily the work of the gluten-free bread manufacturers - except when it arguably is. I have written about Genius Breads' questionable marketing a number of times, but I don't see similar behaviour from all GF bread producers - such as Newburn Bakehouse, for example. Unfair to tar all with the same brush? Blythman says she finds it difficult to find justification for the high prices, but the cost of free from isn't merely about ingredients - as Michelle Berriedale-Johnson of the FreeFrom Food Awards explains perfectly in this article.

There are some other valid points made. The underlying message is that we rely too much on on-shelf, heavily processed foods, rather than try more 'natural' or artisinal producers, such as ABO Bakery - which Blythman champions - and that's a fair call. But, while ABO may well make delicious breads, would they be able to supply the NHS with the quantity required by coeliac prescriptions, without sacrificing their natural and time-heavy bread-making techniques?

Mass produced GF bread is not without flaw, but anyone who recalls the state of the GF bread market a mere ten years ago will know how far it has come. Some credit must go to the brilliant Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne of Genius for her innovative work - and it would have been good for the sake of balance to hear from her in Blythman's article. It's a shame some benefits of mass-produced GF breads weren't covered. For many, coeliac children included, the arrival of palatable sliced breads have revolutionised lives. I have heard Bruce-Gardyne speak of the parents who call her offices in tears to offer thanks that their kids can lead normal lives at school and at birthday parties.

We also should remember that prescription GF foods have to meet stringent standards - including meeting complicated labelling regulations accurately. Artisanal producers may be less likely to get this right: indeed, ABO make a 'naturally gluten free' claim on their packaging, which is not permitted in EU legislation.

During the Genius recall of earlier this year, some coeliacs swore they would avoid the larger brands in the future, as they felt they could no longer trust them. But some felt this may be misplaced: as Berriedale-Johnson argued the real contamination danger for coeliacs " ... was more likely to come from small companies whose protocols and risk management systems were less sophisticated so the chances of mistakes were higher".

The primary concern for coeliacs is to keep away from gluten, and for many, to enjoy the simple everyday pleasure and convenience of a simple sandwich. It's not always about additive-free, preservative-free, home made, traditional, 'clean eating' and neither should it be, as nutritious and health-giving as this may be. Coeliac voices weren't heard in Blythman's article: more confirmation, if needed, of the degree to which 'gluten free' has slipped from their grasp.

Coeliac UK have responded to the Sunday Times article - click here to read. 

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