The rise of the breadstremists

Bread. Gluten Free. Real as you like.

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.


  1. Leon

    Well written.
    I’m a coeliac now for over 15 years. I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts though I’m no longer UK based but now in the Philippines where the GF trend has well and truly taken off, in a very unregulated way (i.e. one well known bakery making rye sourdough bread claiming that it’s GF and been tried by many coeliacs). There is no testing for Coeliac disease here, rather it’s a new health trend that’s become popular. It’s hardly improved things for me here, it’s still extremely hard to get GF food but I get by with making all our own.
    I make traditional sourdough bread for my kids, very carefully mind you, but sometimes make GF loafs for myself from recipes I can find. I was amazed last time I was in Australia at the quality of the GF bread now available, it really has come in leaps and bounds in the last decade from the inedible white cardboard tasting breads of a decade ago.
    Keep up with the good work on the blog, it’s always good to find critical informative writing on the web.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Thanks Leon, and very interesting to get an insight into GF in the Philippines. Are they even aware of coeliac as a disease? What about your doctor?
      Agree with the improvements to bread, albeit due to some of the additives the RBC so disapprove of. Can you get xanthan there, for example, or do you do without?

  2. Madeleine Boase

    I’m a RBC supporter and I’m really, really aware of Ceoliac disease, as, I would bet, are most good bakers. The campaign encourages bakers to make bread without additives, but any grain/starch/seed goes and any non-synthetic additive that is added for the pleasure of the eater is also fine. Full ingredients labelling is also encouraged. I take your point about salt. The point the RBC makes is that salt has a function in bread, whereas additional synthetic fungicide should be superfluous in a loaf made locally, sold on the day and treated with care. A lot of additives create a long-life, light (and therefore bigger and more saleable) loaf: they aren’t there for the pleasure or health of the eater -and this is as true for gf bread as it is for a wheat loaf. I started making bread because I began developing what looked like wheat intolerance, but discovered it was only from (even gf) sliced loaves I bought, not from those I made. Whether it’s the additives or the process, I’ve concluded that industrial sliced loaves are not OK, and that’s why I joined the RBC and support their work to improve labelling, look at ingredients and processes and put the pleasure of ‘real’ bread, gf or not, back into baking.
    As a baker, my experience is that an unfortunate number of non-Coeliac people using the idea that they have Coeliac disease as a way of controlling their diet or their lives. They cannot know the suffering that the actual condition entails, nor what it does to the public understanding of genuine Coeliacs, or those trying to make sense of it whilst trying to make a livelihood (i.e. bakers). It is impossible to tell at the shop counter who is an actual Coeliac, but the one who behaves as if you’ve offered them poison in the shape of a wheat loaf sandwich, insists that they have to go to Pret for gf lunch, and then later returns to sit and eat a cake (without batting an eyelid when you, looking after them, mention that it is wheat-based) probably isn’t a Coeliac -but undermines the suffering of people with true Coeliac disease.
    It is unhelpful to assume that bakers that can’t do gf and are proud of using natural ingredients are snobs or ignorant. Within days of opening my tiny, one-room bakery, I had a customer shout at me because I was ‘excluding’ him and, he claimed, 10% of the local population who were ‘also Coeliac’. Even if he were part of the 10% of local people are Coeliac’, (I’d query that figure), where did he think I was going to make bread that was safe for him? It is not practical to expect all bakers to serve gf, but it is really, really good to encourage more understanding of the condition, more clarity over diagnosis and definition (so that self-diagnosed ‘gluten-sensitive’ doesn’t become ‘Coeliac’), more communication between Coeliacs and bakers and more bakers overall to use, as the RBC encourages, ingredients that are as natural as possible.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Thanks Madeleine for very thoughtful comments.

      I do support the RBC’s aim to encourage baking, support use of local and whole ingredients and campaign for greater accessibility of what they call real bread. What I’m less keen on is their attacks on products which don’t meet their high standards – impossibly high, virtually, in the case of GF breads. I struggle to see why these criticisms are necessary. I don’t see cheese manufacturers and dairy farmers behave in an equivalent manner towards plant-based milk manufacturers, which may not be as ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ or dare I say it ‘real’ as whole milk products, but are essential for those with milk allergies, including children, and increasingly chosen by vegans and veggies.

      I don’t think anybody in this discussion – certainly not me – assumes that artisanal bakers are necessarily snobs or ignorant. But the position taken by the RBC is to me the height of food snobbery and privilege. It assumes that ‘real’ bread is the best for everyone. It ignores factors of palatability, income and time – time to bake / access to a kitchen. It ignores coeliac children, who merely want to go to school and eat a sandwich with their friends; quite reasonably, they would like to be able to chew that bread – not a given if that bread is a dense GF bread with no additives – and their parents who, frankly, are quite stressed enough about their condition and often struggle to keep them well. It ignores low-income families. It fearmongers with chemophobia.

      The language used too is deeply problematic – ‘industrial’ in a negative sense, for instance. We are an industrial nation. We are 70 million in this country. The food industry keeps us alive.

      This line on the RBC website sums it up for me: “Surely someone with an immune system / digestive disorder or allergy would be better off with all-natural gluten-free food?” – it’s basically saying “We know better than that individual and that individual’s dietitian and doctor”. It can only be the RBC’s particular brand of ‘real bread’ ideology that underlines this level of arrogance.

      Thank you again, Alex.

  3. Madeleine Boase

    Thanks Alex, I appreciate your reply. I agree that it is still relatively unusual to find accessible gf bread of the quality that the RBC champions, but I believe that we are in need, as a society, of better quality bread of any type. Bear with me, I’ll try to explain. I think we’re in the situation with gf loaves that wheat bread reached 25years ago, when craft bakeries were competing with supermarket/industrial bakeries to increase their loaves’ size and superficial appearance of variety, whilst cutting costs, with little regard for the health of the consumer. We have been sold crap loaves of this type for yonks and it’s only with the new wave of ‘real bread’ bakers that quality and holistic benefits have returned to the checklist of what makes ‘good’ bread.
    Amongst other models, the RBC encourages local bakeries to supply their local communities, generally through training and employing skilled local workers in rewarding jobs. From experience, I’d say that this creates a trusting relationship with your customers that leads you to make discerning choices about the quality of your product. This model would work equally for gf bakers, and many other professions too – and with proper pay for skilled work, more of us could afford food that is inaccessible today. The people who lose out when the price goes down are the people who, at first, appear to benefit. Bread cannot be compared slice to slice, but as a diet and a lifestyle – pay people better, appreciate them more, they will be more likely to make a product that sustains the consumer, the maker, their suppliers, their community etc. rather than just their bottom line.
    I understand the desire of a child to eat ‘normal-looking’ food so as not to stand out, but I’d suggest that food has lost its normality and our idea of what is OK is shaped heavily by what advertisers tell us (often with patently misleading campaigns) is desirable, and it’s not *our* best interests that they have at heart.
    In my understanding, no offence is intended to Coeliacs in the RBC’s criticism of factory-produced pap. They are aiming their criticism at the opaque processes and weird additives used by industrial manufacturers who hide behind the appearance of wholesomeness, and whose ‘bread’ does us all a disservice. This is my opinion, I am not a spokesperson of the RBC.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      I think there’s a wider discussion to be had about food quality and health impact, although I think bread forms only a small part of that.
      I’ve Italian ethnicity. In Italy, it is normal for independent bakers to be within walking distance of everyone not living remotely or in small villages. Ditto most other European countries, no doubt. I would love it to be the case with the UK too. I support RBC work in local communities that you describe. But we don’t have wheat bakeries on every corner, and a GF bakery on every corner is an even more remote vision in the land of unicorns. It won’t happen, and even if it could happen, it’s not here now. What are coeliacs to do in the meanwhile?
      I know it may be difficult to see (and I’m not one who believes there are no good or bad foods) but language such as ‘factory produced pap’ and ‘weird additives’ etc is damaging to coeliacs and parents of coeliac children.
      The RBC’s Chris Young in turning up his nose at the GF bread on the programme may not have intended offence but he has caused it, and worry, and panic, and he’s been told as much, and he’s not shown any sign of regret or contrition whatsoever.


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