The Coeliac UK Gluten Free Challenge: Day 3

“Gluten free, gluten free,” repeated the female checkout assistant at my local Co-op, after I’d repeated my request. “What is gluten free?” She turned to her male colleague. “Do we have gluten free bread?”

He in turn looked at me as if I were a recent visitor from the moon Weirdo which orbits the planet Oddio in the Galaxy of Fruitloop. Baffled looks were exchanged between the two.

Part of me wasn’t surprised at this – I’d been looking for a sniff of a ‘free from’ section for a few minutes, and had found nothing. The only visible members of staff were at the tills. The two had clearly never been asked anything like this before.

I am talking, it bears repeating, about a household-name supermarket in the largest city in Britain – albeit a smallish branch.

Male assistant, taking advantage of a break in customers, led me to aisle 1. We stopped at the wheaten loaves. He turned to me. He pointed at all the bread. “This is all the bread,” he announced, I suppose presuming I might have failed my Bakery Products Awareness ‘O’ Level.

“That’s wheat flour bread, though. I’m looking for gluten free.”

“What kind of packet does it come in?”

“Well it varies.”

“What is the brand?”

“There are many types. Look – if you’ve never heard of gluten free, I imagine you don’t have it…”

“I’ll check with the manager.”

He checked with the manager. The manager had no gluten-free bread either.

Had I been less drenched after being caught in the rain, had I been less tired after a trip into town (see below), had I been less hungry after about seven hours without food – then I’d have asked to see the gluten-free-bread-less manager and asked him why he and his supermarket were gluten-free-bread-less. But I wimped and trotted off, equally gluten-free-bread-less, very, very grumpily.

It had been an otherwise decent day: the first where I’ve felt I’ve eased into a safe and happy rhythm with my breakfast, lunch and extras. I’m established on a dairy free dessert with fruit and seeds for breakfast, GF bread rolls with salad-y or veg-y stuff for lunch, hemp milk or rice milk in my brews, and a Mrs Crimble’s macaroon (just two so far) for when I need a sugary perk. All good.

This afternoon I was at the House of Commons for a reception with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coeliac Disease and Dermatitis Herpetiformis, as part of Coeliac Awareness Week. It was nice to catch up with familiar faces from Coeliac UK, whom I’ve got to know over all the years I’ve been writing about coeliac disease, and some health journalists, as well as others on the coeliac ‘circuit’. Plus, it’s always nice to chat to the ever friendly Dr Chris Steele, Coeliac UK’s Health Ambassador, who also kindly wrote the foreword to my book.

Among well-known faces giving short speeches alongside Dr Chris was Esther Rantzen, who proved to be an entertaining speaker, teasing the photographer amusingly, and who told of the experience of her daughter (which I blogged about some weeks ago). Also speaking was Coeliac UK’s Food Ambassador Phil Vickery, whose passion for GF cooking and awareness came across strongly. Dr Chris, for his part, recalled the ‘celebrations’ he triggered in the Coeliac UK office when he phoned in the news of his diagnosis two years ago – cue much laughter.

The oddest thing, as far as the food went, was that there was a fine spread of gluten-free food around… and I didn’t have it. I can’t say why. Perhaps I felt it was not there for me.

However your roving reporter, ever with his ear to the ground, did pick up on a bit of industry gossip. This may or may not be well known or hush hush, but a little bird may or may not have whispered to me that, next year, The Allergy Show may or may not be branching off and heading to a major northern city, while still remaining in London too. Can we all handle two shows? My legs are jellifying at the mere thought.

You may or may not have heard it here first…

To learn more about Coeliac UK’s Gluten-free Challenge, click here.


  1. Michelle

    Oh dear for the Coop…. I am reliably informed that they do have some branded gf goods but I suspect only in larger stores – and that there are own label products on their way later in the summer – but can you wait?…..

  2. Alex G

    Nope – but I'm more interested in our trip north next year! Can *you* wait?!

  3. Micki

    Surprised at the Co-op. They are generally really good with allergy stuff. I went there the other day because they label their wines now with what they have been filtered with and say if they are vegan and gluten free, which is really useful.

    Enjoying your foray into the glutenfree and lactosefree world, although that parmesan was cheating a bit – I wonder what it would have tasted like without it!

    I suppose we can allow you that being an Italian – I have an Italian patient, who can eat pasta and bread in Italy but gets ill with them here. Now, why would that be? In fact, I had a patient go to Turkey recently and be fine and another to Austria and eat OK there. When all three come back to the UK, they get sick again with the wheat and dairy here. Something we are doing differently? Any ideas? Not the holiday de-stress factor as some of them were in more stressful situations abroad than at home. Mysterious…

    Keep up the good work, Alex.

  4. Alex G

    It's a fairly small branch – but still.

    Ha, yes – did cheat with the Parmesan a bit – although it really is very low lactose. Given that it is a Parmesan recipe (ie – from Parma) I did find it very difficult to omit. But as I said in previous comments, I may just look into doing an even more 'free from' version at some point!

    So difficult to know re: your patients. There could be so many different environmental factors. Theoretically, I suppose, immune function could alter abroad, when you're exposed to different, say, pollens – which may be a factor if you're a hay fever sufferer, and so you react to food differently. Temperature could be a factor. You have to consider psychological factors too – and Michelle has just blogged about this over at Foods Matter ( There are many possibilities – I would suspect it has little if anything to do with the wheat itself, but I'm just speculating.

    Thanks for your input, Micki, and for stopping by!

  5. Toucan Scraps

    not unusual for small stores not to hold "free from" products. We just have to become adept at reading ingredients labels and usually end up with fresh fruit or similar.

  6. Alex G

    No – I guess perhaps not, though am still surprised that the assistants had never heard of gluten free bread. Thanks, Alex.


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