Coeliac awareness week is coming!

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.


And this is why…

…I’m so passionate about gluten-free food and clarity.  Went to lunch at a friend’s house yesterday.  She knows I can’t eat gluten, lactose or soy and very thoughtfully provided me with some delicious pumpkin seed crackers from Waitrose instead of bread for our starter.

Within an hour or so I knew there was a problem, but I wasn’t sure whether it had been a couple of crumbs falling onto my plate from someone passing bread around or whether there was a bigger issue.

Having meant to ask whether I could see the packet from the crackers so I could buy them myself in future – because they were very tasty – the thought got lost somewhere between the Sauternes and the coffee, and so it was only on returning home that I was able to check out the crackers on the Waitrose web site.

Oops.  They were – bleeurgh! – spelt crackers.  I have nothing against spelt per se, but it is not, as many people seem to think, gluten-free.  And having eaten 3 of the darn things I was looking about 8 months pregnant before nightfall with the bloating, while today has been a cola and imodium diet just to get me through the day without having to think about eating.  From past experience, I’ve got another 24-48 hours of feeling rough, and there’s not a food in the world worth feeling this bad.  Sorry.

So I feel awful, and I have no doubt my friend would feel bad about making me ill.  Certainly, I know more than a few people with wheat intolerance who can cope with spelt quite happily, but I also know a few people who think spelt is safe for coeliacs because it’s some ancient, unsullied and non-overbred grain.  Er, no.  Where are people getting this idea?

Of course, if you read the ingredients box on the packet it will have an allergy notification stating that it contains gluten, but that’s on the back of the pack in small print.  If I had one plea, just one, to the food industry at large, it would be to put the allergens in a nice, big box on the front of the packaging so that anyone can see, next to the name of the product, whether it is safe for them or not, without even having to lift the packet from the shelf.  This is such a simple thing to do, and it could improve life for so many people.  Please?

Hello fellow cake lovers!

Welcome to my blog!  I’m Melanie, and I make cakes.  Quite a lot of cakes, actually, as well as other nice things to eat.  While the cooking and baking have been going on for quite some time, I’ve not previously blogged about them, but that’s changing now.  While my family and friends love eating the results, they are – probably sensibly – less passionate about discussing such things.

And I’ll admit I’m on a bit of a mission.  Having been told by the docs I would have to stick to a gluten-free diet for the rest of my life, I quickly discovered that this would mean accepting some pretty poor substitute products if I wanted to eat the same kind of things I did before.  This was worrying, because I love my food.  I love textures and flavours and the amazing smells a little time and care can produce, and I wasn’t keen to compromise.  How hard could it be to reproduce the things I loved without including gluten in the process?

So began the journey.  I’ve met a few other coeliacs and people with a range of food intolerances since I started experimenting.  I’ve also found that most people assume that anything calling itself ‘free-from’ or ‘gluten-free’ will be sub-standard and less worth eating than its wheat, rye or barley-stuffed counterpart.  Fortunately, I’ve also surprised a lot of them by giving them a cake, letting them express their enjoyment, and then revealing that it was gluten-free.

I want to prove that gluten-free can be as delicious as ‘normal’ food.  I don’t think it’s acceptable for companies to set lower standards of flavour and texture for people with food intolerance than they do for those without.  It’s not good enough if customers say that a product is ‘not bad for something gluten-free’.  It’s either good or it isn’t.

I shall get off my soapbox now.  For those who’ve made it this far, thanks for reading – I hope to get to know a few of you as time goes on 🙂