Real bread, according to Sustain’s Real Bread Campaign (RBC), must be free of artificial additives and processing aids. So no baking powders, enzymes or vegetable gums such as xanthan. Essentially: flour, water, yeast, and salt, then, with added herbs and seeds and other whole food embellishments also being allowed.
From this ancient core recipe, delicious loaves can be baked, thanks to the magical gluten protein in wheat, whose elastic qualities give rise to the soft and cloudy and chewy bread many of us are lucky to savour.
Not so the coeliac, whose store cupboard must be free from wheat. You’ll instead find starches and flours made from teff, sorghum, rice, buckwheat, corn and others, all of which acceptable to ‘real’ bread’s self-appointed gatekeepers, but alongside you might find binders and raising agents, all of which are not.
Labels on most gluten-free flour blends and breads on supermarket shelves merely confirm the undeniable — for palatability, rise, structure and to mitigate against bake-off disaster, additives are virtually compulsory.
On its website, RBC pretty much shrugs it shoulders at the lack of ‘real’ gluten-free loaves — Artisan Bread Organic being the lone brand to clear their high bar (average loaf just shy of £5) — and fails to acknowledge the challenges both the home baker and GF manufacturer face in producing an edible or marketable bread free from gluten. This appears to me to be a wilful blindness to the obvious.
I have just watched RBC spokesman Chris Young on Channel 5’s Secrets of Your Supermarket Food criticise gluten free bread for not meeting the Campaign’s lofty standards.
The logical fallacy Young resorted to is exasperatingly common in food discourse these days — the appeal to tradition and nature, and the assumption of its superiority, both scientific and moral.
There was tired chemophobia concerning unrecognisable ingredients which were “not strictly speaking food substances”. Xanthan gum copped it for being quite handy in the oil drilling industry. As did glycerin for having the temerity to prove useful in make-up. Salt’s dual functionality as a road de-icer and water’s as a nuclear reactor coolant went unrecorded, meanwhile. It couldn’t have escaped the passing cosmetic chemist’s irony-radar that wheat is used in mascara and lipstick as a thickener.
The RBC has paid lip service to coeliacs on Twitter, claiming it has no beef with them, claiming to ‘celebrate’ gluten free bread (no evidence for which is evident or has been produced), and yet in attacking one of their staples, claiming that it doesn’t deserve to be branded as bread, and implying instead that it is to be feared, must have felt a personal attack to many for whom the new wave of fluffy white breads we have seen in the last decade represents freedom and enjoyment — a post-diagnosis pleasure that can be had again.
The RBC’s thoughtlessness has already triggered fear and panic on Facebook groups, and I have every certainty that charity Coeliac UK, whose time has been wasted by early media coverage of this nonsense — see their response here — will be equally overworked tomorrow, fielding calls from worried coeliac folk, imagining they are being poisoned or, worse, poisoning their children, many of whom want nothing more than to eat a sandwich alongside classmates at school lunch and to feel normal. Imagine the guilt — no doubt compounded by Young’s derisory comment that he wouldn’t give gluten free bread to his child — that mums and dads must be feeling.
It was Emma Clarke Conway, a prominent Irish coeliac voice, who furthermore pointed out to me that this criticism of gluten free food can only serve to dissuade undiagnosed potential coeliacs from seeking help: ie “If the food is this bad, this bad for you, I’d rather not know.” Then there’s the deterrent to innovate. It’s hardly going to encourage more free from food brands to work on new products, or to improve their formulations health-wise, to reach those ‘real’ standards demanded by the breadstremists. Who suffers? Coeliacs, again.
It’s worth recalling that coeliacs have never claimed gluten free bread to be healthier. They are well aware it is usually lower in fibre and higher in fat, for example. Moderation is key. Nobody gorges on a loaf. No, it is electively gluten free Insta midriffs with barely declared sponsorship deals who make unfounded claims for GF food. It is cheerfully under-qualified ‘nutrition experts’ who advocate kale-based detoxes who back them up. It is a few of the brands themselves — very regrettably the original innovators Genius among them — who make flawed pseudo-scientific claims about gluten’s dangers.
Challenge them, by all means, but do not lay burden upon medically disadvantaged people and families wishing to consume food or provide for children with the same pleasure which surely others take for granted.
As the RBC indulge in their food snobbery without care for consequence, people with food sensitivities of all descriptions have enough on their plates — not merely the difficulties of shopping on a restricted diet, but a reduction in state provision for GF food, potential post-Brexit food insecurity, and uncertainty regarding labelling standards.
A food campaign founded on privilege and an unyieldingly strict ideology that refuses to concede one millimetre beyond its red lines towards gluten-free reality is not what coeliacs either need or care for on top of all that. They and they only are perfectly capable of determining how ‘real’ the bread in their basket is just fine.