Gluten is a protein, found in the grains wheat, barley and rye, that triggers an abnormal immune response in people with coeliac disease. Some people are also sensitive to oats…

By Emily Hampton, Coeliac UK Head of Food Policy

Coeliac disease is not an allergy or food intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease which affects 1 in 100 people in the UK. When someone with coeliac disease eats food containing gluten it causes damage to the lining of the gut, which reduces the absorption of nutrients from food and may present with a range of symptoms.

These can include:

  • persistent gastrointestinal symptoms
  • including diarrhoea and/or constipation
  • excessive wind
  • recurrent stomach pain, cramping or bloating
  • nutritional deficiencies such as iron, vitamin B12 and folate deficiency
  • feeling tired all the time
  • unexplained neurological symptoms
  • mouth ulcers.

Once diagnosed, the only treatment for coeliac disease is a strict gluten free diet.
Gluten is commonly found in foods made from wheat flour, for example breads, pasta, biscuits, crackers and cakes. It can also be found in foods such as ready meals, sauces, sausages and soups.

The good news is there are many foods which are naturally gluten free, including all types of rice, potato, corn (maize), plain meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, most yoghurts, fruits, vegetables and pulses (peas, beans and lentils). There are also many gluten free substitute foods such as gluten free bread and pasta and processed foods that don’t contain gluten like canned soups, canned baked beans, mayonnaise and ketchup.

Access and availability of gluten free food

In the UK, there is now an established gluten free market but this wasn’t always the case. In the past, identification of gluten free food, both in retail and when eating out, was a challenge. Over the past decade, key developments in food legislation have led to improvements in access and availability of gluten free food, and Coeliac UK has been lobbying for better availability of gluten free food, so that people on a gluten free diet can eat safely, no matter where they are.

When it comes to gluten, it is important to distinguish between gluten free labelling and allergen labelling. When a food is labelled gluten free it relates to the absence of gluten (less than 20ppm), whereas allergen labelling relates to the presence of gluten in food as a deliberate ingredient.

Eating out with confidence –Coeliac UK GF accreditation

The market for gluten free foods is on the increase and an estimated 1.3 million Britons are now on a gluten free diet as the medical treatment for coeliac disease, or to control symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or non coeliac gluten sensitivity.

Things have much improved over the last few years and many eating establishments will have gluten free options on their menus and kitchen and food handling procedures in place to cater for people who need a strict gluten free diet.

Therefore, there’s no reason why you can’t eat out if you have coeliac disease or follow a strict gluten free diet, and you can make the experience easier and safer by knowing what
to look for.

Call venues in advance or check their website to see if they offer gluten free options. When you arrive, communication with staff is key so explain to the waiting staff why you can’t have food that contains gluten, and get this message relayed to the kitchen.

By law, they need to be able to tell you about dishes that contain any allergens, including wheat, rye, barley and oats. Ask about their cross contamination processes. If the menu offers breaded items such as chicken or fish these may be cooked in the same pans as non breaded dishes or fried in the same fryer. Ask your waiter or the chef to use separate pans to avoid cross contamination.

Look out for Coeliac UK’s GF accreditation symbol that can help you quickly identify venues which follow strict procedures in food handling and ingredient use, to ensure a safe gluten free experience. This GF symbol can only be used by restaurants that have received the necessary training and audit to provide food that meets the gluten free standard in line with  gluten free legislation.

There are now over 3,500 venues across the UK that are accredited by Coeliac UK and use their GF symbol, which provides customers on a gluten free diet with assurance that they can enjoy safe gluten free options. Check out accredited venues at: www.coeliac.org.uk/lookforgf

Shopping with confidence

When you have to remove gluten from your diet one of the most daunting things is going food shopping. Coeliac UK has been working with major supermarkets to increase availability of gluten free food in stores to try to reduce the number of shops you may need to visit just to get staple items.

The charity has a number of tools to help when shopping for a gluten free diet including the award winning Gluten Free Food Checker app that provides information on over 150,000 products. The app also includes:

  • a barcode scanner
  • lists of ingredients and nutritional information for products
  • readymade product lists
  • a labelling video to help you make choices in the mainstream supermarket aisles

The app is exclusive to members of the charity but joining is easy www.coeliac.org.uk/join-us

When navigating the supermarket shelves there are several ways of checking if a food is suitable for a gluten free diet. Firstly, look out for the Crossed Grain trademark.

Coeliac UK works with food manufacturers to provide an additional level of safety to their gluten free products through the Crossed Grain product certification scheme. Once certified, manufacturers can use the Crossed Grain trademark, under licence from Coeliac UK highlighting they have gone the extra mile for their gluten free products. You can also look for foods labelled as gluten free and check the ingredients list to see if gluten is listed as one of the 14 allergens.