'What is gluten' is among the most searched questions of 2014. We're all interested, but is it a trend - or a step in a healthier direction?

Sometimes a trend just hits you between the eyes, or in this case, right in the gut. In October, South Park released an episode titled, in usual irreverent style, Gluten Free Ebola, centring around a mass panic as the town disposed of all gluten-containing foods and quarantined those who had indulged. “I was in a restaurant and ordered the gluten-free quinoa salad, and a guy right next to me was eating a sandwich. It's like ‘Get your second-hand gluten away from me!’”

You can be pretty sure of a pop culture ‘moment’ if it has made it into an episode of South Park. You can also be pretty sure of an emerging trend with Google’s ‘most searched’ list of the year. The year, the top 10 “what is…?” questions included lupus, ALS, Ebola, twerking (groan) and, in at number six, gluten. Ladies and gentlemen, a trend is born.

A few years ago, gluten wasn’t really on my radar, let alone my Google search engine. Since being diagnosed with coeliac disease a couple of years ago, however, it has become probably my most-searched term. Gluten-free restaurants near me, gluten-free shortbread recipe, gluten-free at Gatwick Airport - my browsing history reads like the dullest hipster wannabe ever. I blog about gluten (or lack thereof), plan lunch and brunch meets around recommended spots, even plan my holidays around it. And I’m not alone. There are gluten-free Meet Up groups, supperclubs, and a hell of a lot of Pinterest boards devoted to the subject.

So it’s officially a trend. But why? Most people roll their eyes when they hear you’re gluten-free, thinking you’re hopping on the bandwagon of the latest weight-loss/health trend. To quote South Park once more: “I’ve been gluten-free for about a day now, and I have to say I feel sooo amazing.” Yes, more people are avoiding grains, wheat and gluten, for health reasons, citing intolerances or allergies. But for most, I imagine it’s less about following a fad and more about seeing real change and feeling better. Cutting out gluten is not a simple task, and I, a fickle follower of every fad going, would never have been able to cut out gluten if not for the fact that I had no choice. It’s not just about forgoing bread and pasta - gluten lurks in sauces, coatings, crisps, certain chocolate bars, flavourings, soy sauce, ketchup - even in the chocolate dusting on your cappuccino. Most pre-pack salads contain if not pasta, couscous (wheat), soups are thickened with wheat, fish is coated in flour - even breaded ham gets knocked off the list. If you’re a gluten-free faddist, you’re a stronger one than me.

In his book Wheat Belly, Dr William Davis puts the increase in reported cases of wheat intolerance down to the changes in the grain itself. Wheat, he explains, bears no relation to the grain our ancestors - or even our grandmothers - consumed. It has been cross-bred and genetically modified for higher yield, a move which has been credited for effectively wiping out world hunger. Instead of our romanticised ideas of fields of tall wheat stalks swaying in the breeze, we now are more likely to see acre upon acre of dwarf wheat. Less energy and fertiliser is required to grow shorter stalks, and the plant won’t buckle and die under the heavy seed head. Now 99% of the world’s supply of wheat (across fields occupying twice the acreage of Western Europe) is of dwarf or semi-dwarf variety. Wheat, but not wheat, the structure of the proteins within it changed beyond recognition. And Davis claims this is why more of us are struggling to digest it.

But back to the question: “What is gluten”. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is what you would come up with if you kneaded water and flour together, then rinsed the starch away under the tap. It is what holds together the bread, makes it bounce, makes your dough pliant. It gives croissants their flakiness, bagels their braun, brioche its fluffiness. It is extremely hard to fake (any gluten-free baking enthusiast will confirm this). Without gluten, yeasted bread will not rise in the same way, pizza can’t be tossed, dough can’t be stretched and worked. Gluten protein has been isolated and used as a protein source for vegetarians, called seitan in Japan, so it does have its uses.

For coeliacs, gluten triggers an auto-immune response in the intestines - the body sees it as an intruder and basically begins to attack itself. The villi on the intestinal walls, which absorb vital nutrients, flatten in response to this intruder, thus failing to absorb anything else. This can result in diarrhoea, skin rashes, tiredness, anaemia, headaches, the anecdotal ‘brain fog’ and longer term, neurological problems, arthritis, brittle bones and cancer. Studies are now linking coeliac disease to other autoimmune conditions, including Crohn’s, colitis and rheumatoid arthritis.

It is estimated that 1% of the population suffers from coeliac disease, but that many remain undiagnosed. This year, research by the University of Nottingham found a fourfold increase in diagnoses in the UK over the past two decades, but that three quarters of people with coeliac disease remained undiagnosed. A simple blood test is all you may need to indicate coeliac disease - something that is standard for school-age children in Italy, a wheat-heavy country. For others, a negative coeliac diagnosis may not rule out intolerances, with patients crediting eliminating gluten with helping to ease irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, skin conditions or weight problems.

Will giving up gluten be a magical weight-loss solution? No, especially if you’re simply replacing bread, cakes and crisps with their gluten-free alternatives. In fact, chances are the replacements are even higher in calories, fat and nasty additives to help the food bind and mimic the texture. Will cutting it out fast-track you to health? Not alone, but choosing naturally gluten-free alternatives to grains could boost your nutrient intake and cut irritation - experiment with “courgetti” - strips of courgette - instead of pasta, or ground cauliflower “rice” instead of couscous. Adding to your five-a-day without the bloat. Will gluten elimination be a miracle cure-all? The jury’s still out, but food is your fuel - if cutting processed, artificial foods (many of which are gluten-containing) boosts your energy and alleviates your symptoms, go with it.

Whether a dalliance or a diagnosis, gluten-free is definitely more of a ‘thing’ now than it ever has been. Most cafes will now have a gluten-free brownie or even sandwich as part of their selection, and restaurants are even offering completely gluten-free menus. The ‘free-from’ section in supermarkets, once home to a sad little selection of dusty rice cakes, now stretch for half an aisle, glistening with cookies and cakes galore. This week alone, a new exclusively gluten-free bakery, Beyond Bread, has opened in London’s Soho - its tagline is “gluten-free is the new black”. “We are here to prove that gluten free bakery is far beyond a sad looking and miserable tasting piece of toast,” says founder Elena Golubovich. “We work really hard to develop a range of products that is tasty and nutritionally balanced and could compete with any conventional bakery goods available on the market.”

For coeliacs who were once resigned to carrying their naff vacuum-packed bread to every social occasion, the increasing availability of gluten-free products is a godsend. And, if the Google searches are anything to go by, it seems that more people are becoming interested in what gluten actually is. Perhaps the days of eye-rolling and gentle teasing whenever you dare mumble a gluten-related request are coming to an end. In your face, South Park.

Tips for a gluten-free Christmas

A little indulgence at Christmas time is key, but you could never accuse it of being the ‘gluten-free’ holiday. Christmas dinner alone is packed with treacherous trimmings, and my first year as a coeliac saw me sulking in my paper crown as bowls of bread sauce, stuffing, plum pudding and sausages were passed back and forth, while I toyed with my sprouts and dry turkey. Nowadays, however, I’m a little more savvy - with the right prep, everything can be gluten-free and almost as good

Make your own, or if gluten-free baking has frustrated you in the past, there are some great shop-bought alternatives. All the main supermarkets now offer gluten-free mince pies, cakes and puddings - or check out your local delis and health food shops. The winners in the mince pie stakes (after rigorous testing) for me are Irish company The Foods of Athenry - pricey but I challenge anyone to tell the difference. For parties, the No.G range of mini quiches are wonderfully retro (and realistic), and Nairn’s gluten-free oatcakes will add a bit of class to your favourite cheeseboard.

Amanda Parker, development chef at gluten-free Beyond Bread bakery has some advice to ensure you don’t miss out on the festive treats.

1. For a gluten-free stuffing, simply follow your favourite recipe and substitute the breadcrumbs for gluten-free breadcrumbs (Mrs Crimbles is a good brand to buy) or you can make your own from store-bought gluten-free bread.  Also make sure the sausage meat is gluten-free (I always use the meat from store-bought gluten-free sausages from brands such as Heck and The Black Farmer).  

2. For making gravy, I use rice flour or corn flour, these make less lumps in the sauce and thicken better than other flours.  Add 1 tbsp flour to 3 tbsp water, mix until a paste is formed and add to your sauce/gravy on a low heat.  Keep stirring until it starts to thicken. Once thickened, its ready.

3. Stock up on Christmas gluten-free products - remember to always try and buy as and when you see them, as they always tend to run out just before Christmas, especially the mince pies and Christmas puddings. Freeze them if they have a short shelf life.

4. I you are attending a Christmas party, make sure the host is aware of your allergy. You can either offer to help prepare the food or to bring your own.  If you are really worried about eating out, just make sure you grab a bite to eat before the party so you don’t go hungry.