Of all the food fads to emerge in the last decade, none has turned cookery on its head quite like the recent surge of gluten-free foods.
It’s true that there are a number of people who suffer from gluten sensitivity, some to a life-threatening degree. But the known number of Australians diagnosed with coeliac disease is vastly outweighed by the number choosing a gluten-free diet, at least in part. Research indicates that, at present, coeliac disease affects less than 1% of the population, although there is some evidence that those numbers are growing.
Coeliac disease is an auto-immune problem in which sufferers are unable to digest gliadin, one of the basic proteins found in wheat and related crops like barley and rye. Patients’ degree of gluten sensitivity varies greatly from mild to extreme. For serious sufferers, exposure to gliadin causes bowel inflammation, nausea, constipation, skin psoriasis, abdominal pain, mouth ulcers and reduced nutrient absorption, which in turn leads to secondary health effects. All in all, it’s a very nasty business, particularly when it afflicts young children.
But trying to lead a balanced gluten-free diet has proven difficult in our northern-European derived culture where bread and pasta are such staples. What’s more, gluten is used in the majority of commercially-produced foods. It has only been in the last ten years that industry has begun making gluten-free food in significant quantities.
But why the change?
Social dieting – it’s been a demand-led economy. As low-carb, no-carb, fat-free and fruitarian diets waned, the urban clique of diet alternativists sought another platform on which to work, and gluten-free seems to have become the latest chosen form. Most choosing gluten-free may not need it, but consider the benefits received by those who really do need a gluten-free diet.
After centuries of difficulty in diagnosis, treatment and dietary management, coeliacs have a voice at last: even our young chefs are finally learning how to bake and cook without wheat. But gluten-free food has had a mixed reputation. Many traditional recipes were adapted to gluten-free without planning, and yielded poor results at best. They were simply an attempt to replace wheat flour with another, like soya or sorghum. But as chefs have honed their skills and developed tailored recipes, their offerings have improved markedly.
To put the issues faced by coeliacs into context, consider this. Until 2003 the Catholic Church would not admit coeliacs into the priesthood as they are unable to take the same bread at Eucharist – the church had repeatedly refused to allow the use of rice wafers. Yet today coeliacs may be ordained (perhaps with some trepidation) as the world seems finally to be changing.
Who would have though that an urban fad would finally yield social justice to a maligned and often overlooked part of our community.
Gluten free apple and nut cake