Gluten-free food, not so long ago a niche product for hippies and those with coeliac disease, is the sustenance of the moment. Socialite Nicole Richie rapped about “chillin’ in my crib makin’ gluten-free spaghetti”.Gwyneth Paltrow has put her children on a no-gluten diet….
The new ubiquity of gluten-free products certainly makes life much easier for sufferers of coeliac disease, an auto-immune response to wheat where the body believes wrongly that gluten is attacking it. This makes the finger-shaped vilii that line the small intestine flatten out, stopping absorption of nutrients, with side effects including muscular disturbances, joint pain, headaches and vertigo.
But coeliacs make up only one in 100 of the population, while one in five of us is buying gluten-free products. Surveys of US consumers show that, of these, only five per cent are buying to combat coeliac disease, with the vast majority citing their reasons as “digestive health”, “nutritional value” and “to help me lose weight”. People have been eating bread since biblical times without reporting adverse effects. So why has it recently become demonised? The gluten-free “community” points to a recent surge in the number of people being diagnosed as coeliacs. Not so long ago GPs expected to see one case during their whole career, but now one per cent of the population has it. (Though others say the rise is simply due to improved diagnostic methods and greater awareness of the condition.)