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. 

12 Comments

  1. Simon Whaley

    I was a bit confused by the opening to Joanna's article … that someone would put gluten-free bread into a toaster that wasn't theirs and therefore one they had no knowledge of its potential cross-contamination. On the other hand it could be a good piece of creative non-fiction 😉

    As someone who is only a few months into my gluten-free journey, I have to say what's worried me the most about the ingredients list of 'free from' processed food is not the chemicals listed but, as everyone else has spotted, the high fat, sugar and salt content.

    For me, gluten-free bread just doesn't work. It's like making chocolate without cocoa beans. 🙂 Each to their own, though. But rather than get obsessed about the unpronounceable chemicals, I think we should be more concerned that 2 slices (and let's face it they are SMALL slices) of Genius Original Recipe Brown contain a third of an adult's recommended daily salt intake. It's good to see other Genius bread products carrying less salt.

    As you say, gluten-free products have come on leaps and bounds over the last few years, and hopefully the improvements will continue … and perhaps that might include some of the 'chemicals' Joanna refers to.

    Reply
  2. Alex G

    Interesting re: the beginning of the article: I felt it was inappropriate to draw a conclusion about what the bread may do to the human gut on the basis of what it may do to the toaster's 'gut' – it's not as if guts have electric filaments, after all ….

    Have you tried some of the smaller producers' more 'artisanal' GF breads? Funnily enough I'll be posting tomorrow about producers of products with multiple allergen free credentials, and there'll be some smaller manufacturers mentioned there that you may find interesting.

    I think GF bread can work – just like I think carob 'chocolate' can work – but I think it sometimes requires you to accept that it is simply a different food to gluten-y bread, and to some extent it will never be the same. But, then, I don't have to avoid it, so perhaps I see it differently. I have tasted some homemade varieties that are genuinely good, though – such as GF sourdoughs.

    Thanks for commenting, Simon. As always, email me if I can help with anything!

    Reply
  3. Adriana

    I’m not sure what to make of this article. Although I'm a strong advocate of make your own with ingredients you know and trust and agree that there are a lot of dubious ingredients used in all manufacturing (not just glutenfree) there is something intensely irritating about this article. A lot of hoopla from the Real Bread campaign- I suspect worried about the loss of sales caused by gluten avoiders. But this article just feels like they have an axe to grind and not really understanding 1) what coeliac’s have to put up with 2) what’s required to make a gluten free loaf – it’s nothing like making traditional bread and they seem to think that the same rules apply- which they most definitely don’t.
    The photograph of the gloopy stuff in the glass is cheap journalism at its most basic. Put gluten (a natural substance) in a glass of water and you will see the same sticky gloopy stuff. Gluten gets added to practically all processed foods needlessly. Disappointing that Ms Blythman hasn't taken this issue as one of her causes. It would be great to see her championing this rather then wielding a chopper against FreeFrom manufacturers. Finally, many many natural products have industrial applications. This does not mean they are not suitable for human consumption. One example is salt. Critical in our diet, used widely in food and used to make synthetic rubber. Ok I've vented.

    Reply
  4. Alex G

    You have indeed vented – and vented well – and I can't disagree with anything you say. Real Bread RTd a "if you can't pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn't eat it" tweet yesterday and I find this sort of alarmism and 'chemical' fear mongering foolish and insensitive. It's going to get to the point where fear of food will to trigger a battery of eating disorders – unless we're there already …

    Reply
  5. Adriana

    Agree. I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's one thing to make manufacturers accountable but I think the article is damaging to those who are already struggling with restricted diets and worrying them by using inflammatory words is not helpful.

    Reply
  6. Anna Jacobs

    What they don't seem to mention is the rise of Corn/Maize intolerance and Genius bread relies on Corn/Maize flour. My husband makes me pretty good GF bread from rice and root flours. OK, it goes hard quickly and you can't make sandwiches with it, but it makes wonderful toast – superior to wheat bread toast in my opinion.

    To buy GF bread, I choose Warburton's Thins which are not only delicious but a clever shape and don't drown the filling of a sandwich with too much bread.

    At the moment I can't have most GF foods because they contain maize. Sigh. That makes life very difficult.

    Reply
  7. Alex G

    I think Warburton's products are good too. I've heard increasing reports of corn sensitivities this side of the pond (seems to well established problem in the US) so I suspect some free from manufacturers will start to explore corn-free and GF options more seriously. Have you tried teff breads / flours?

    Reply
  8. thursday

    I just want someone to talk to who understands how I feel because I had just in the last three years got happy and settled in what I can eat and cant, there are so many things. I have a problem that all the gluten free bread products on the market contain hydroxpropol methyl cellulose or soya or palm oil or millet or flax and I am unable to have any of those. The last bread on the market to not contain hydroxpropol methyl cellulose was the m&s white loaf, I could never have the seeded due to millet n flax. About three weeks ago there was none on the shelves, then it came back stating new recipe and to my dismay now contains that and soya. I contacted them for what little it was worth and asked them had they known there bread was the only one on market to not contain those things? And how I was severely intolerant and they replied saying they were sorry but their bread was so much better now than before. I am gutted. I really relied on that bread, I bake nice cakes but bread never works, never, I've tried different types, loaves, rolls, flatbreads, pizza base, fry bake, they don't work good, they don't keep, you have to eat immediately so cant take sandwich to work. I cook from scratch a lot, but its very time consuming, I work full time n have kids. I can't always be making bread or cakes n cookies, not enough hours in day or tired. My diet is so limited, the Dr couldn't care less. I just cried two hours because I want an egg sandwich or a even just a slice of toast. I know its daft, I know could be much worse things but I feel so crap. I am coeliac and highly intolerant to lactose, soya, chickpea, nuts, mustard, millet, flax, palm oil, coconut, hydroxpropol methyl cellulose. All hurt my belly, internal pain, toilet constantly. No one understands

    Reply
  9. Alex G

    Very sorry to hear this. First thing to say is that if you're experiencing pain and diarrhoea and are sticking to your diet, you must see your doctor at once. There may be issues that need investigating, and medication or treatment which can help.

    Second, regarding safe breads, you'd have to look individually at ingredients, but try looking at Biona, or ABO breads (Artisan Bread Organic), or BFree – as some may be safe for you.

    Third, you have a lot of unorthodox intolerances – were these diagnosed by a dietitian? I've not heard of palm oil intolerance, and would only say that self-diagnoses are not reliable, if you have diagnosed these reactions yourself, and neither are IgG or other unorthodox tests. You might have FODMAP issues, which requires a dietitian. I really would insist to your doctor that you'd like to see a dietitian, to ensure any restrictions you follow are truly necessary.

    I'll ask my followers on Twitter if they have other ideas. Good luck and hope things improve soon.

    AG.

    Reply
  10. Vicky @ Most Marvellous Baking

    Gosh you poor thing. I agree entirely with Alex and would urge you to go back to your GP to seek the help of a dietitian.

    On the bread front, our friends at The Incredible Bakery Company may be able to help you as their breads are free of all 14 allergens. I think some may contain millet and/or flax but it would be worth checking them out to see if they have anything suitable for you.

    If you are prepared to bake yourself, my bread mix may be suitable as it is gluten-free (I am also coeliac) and as far as I can see from your post, doesn't contain anything that aggrevates your tummy. It does contain sesame in the mix and requires the addition of egg, so not 14-allergens free.

    I hope this is of some help to you and that you manage to get your egg sandwich very soon.

    Vicky @ Most Marvellous Baking

    Reply
  11. Alex G

    Thursday – I've posted this to Facebook, so further help may come there: https://www.facebook.com/HealthJourno/posts/1106790612696146

    Reply
  12. Alex G

    Another thought: some brands listed here on my '14 allergens free' post may be useful. May Smart Foods? Good Grain Bakery? http://foodallergyandintolerance.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/allergen-free-foods.html

    Reply

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