14-20 May 2012 is Coeliac Awareness Week in the UK. Now, I know, somebody somewhere is always marking something, but since coeliac disease is something that affects me personally, as well as many other people who have yet to be diagnosed, and who could have a much better life if they were, this is one awareness campaign I feel honour bound to support.
If you’re wondering what on earth coeliac disease is, it’s an auto-immune condition that is reckoned to affect some 1% of the population, many of whom remain undiagnosed. Left untreated, the malabsorption that is the result of coeliac disease can leave sufferers exposed to such nasties as osteoporosis, bowel cancer, etc, as well as fertility problems and, at a more basic level, some pretty unpleasant gastro-intestinal symptoms. All because of the body’s response to eating or ingesting gluten.
The good and bad news about this, is that there is only one known treatment for coeliac disease at the moment, and that’s a gluten-free diet. It’s good news, because it’s nice and clear. It’s bad news because – despite how easy it can be to cater for gluten-free diets – so few places offer a decent selection of gluten-free food, or only offer it with a risk of cross-contamination that negates the good intention of offering gluten-free menu items in the first place. And yes, cross-contamination is a real problem: I’ve been made ill in the past by a few crumbs lurking in the butter, for example, even though I’ve conscientiously followed a gluten-free diet for years. It’s also slightly scary – and very frustrating – just how many products seem to contain gluten for no apparent reason, when a simple adjustment could make them safe for more people to eat.
While the quality of foods in the free-from aisle of the supermarket has improved a lot over the last few years, there are still manufacturers who appear to think that we ditched any sense of taste or texture on receipt of our diagnosis. My carrot cake, for example, has beaten carrot cakes made with wheat flour in open competition, so I know from personal experience that you can make things as good as – or better than – their gluten-containing counterparts, if you try. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from some of the offerings out there, which are dry and crumbly and lacking in flavour.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ungrateful, and I’m glad that these products are available, even the not very nice ones, because it is at least an option when you’re hard pressed to find anything to eat on occasion, and the poor quality can act as a catalyst for others to improve on what’s out there. It’s a win-win of sorts. But still.
Gluten-free food can be excellent. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, ask anyone who has enjoyed a Suzzle cake, most of whom have bought the cakes without knowing they were gluten-free… and then come back and bought more. It can be done, and without filling the food full of junk like soya flour, palm oil and ingredients known better by their number than their name. So, for the next week or so, I’ll be using this blog to celebrate some companies who are making or supplying really good, gluten-free food, and making the lives of coeliacs like myself much richer and more enjoyable as a result.
In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about coeliac disease, please do visit the Coeliac UK web site, where you can find information, recipes and support the excellent work the charity does.