How gluten-free became more than just a fad

Let hipsters eat gluten-free cake - it made a world of difference to those of us with coeliac disease

Siobhan Norton
Wednesday 30 July 2014 13:54

You’ve got to feel sorry for the poor old hipsters, really. They emerge every day, blinking through bottle-top glasses and hitching up tartan trousers, to face ridicule. They are forced to listen to records and cassettes instead of newfangled MP3 players (although you won’t have heard of their choice of music anyway). The carefully cultivated beards are becoming a heatwave health hazard. And they can’t even seek solace in a gluten-free hybrid-type cake without being vilified.

I applaud the brave hipsters, if only for the latter. When I was diagnosed with coeliac disease a few years ago, I saw a lot of doors slam shut. Doughy, flaky, delicious doors. Croissants, cookies, burgers, brownies, pizzas, pretzels, cupcakes and crumpets. And beer. Oh God, beer.

On my first day gluten-free, I wandered the supermarket in a daze, reading labels with incredulity. Gluten in ketchup? Crisps? MARS BARS? A week later, I went to dinner with friends, staring mournfully at their gluten-y goodies while I sulked with a salad. After that, I started to some research, and discovered that, probably thanks in part to the latest food ‘fad’, there were options.

Across the UK, more and more restaurants and shops are tapping into the gluten-free trend. Fad or not, most have obviously realised the business logic behind it. A good range of gluten-free options won’t just attract the coeliacs, but also their dining companions, thus tapping into quite a large market. Where once Italian was very much off the menu for coeliacs in the UK, chains like Pizza Express and Carluccios now offer extensive gluten-free menus. Starbucks, Costa and Nero have a gluten-free sandwich, as do many major supermarkets.

At so-hip-it-hurts burger chain Honest Burgers, it wasn’t just a good business decision, it was important to the company’s ethos. “We have not just introduced the product to say we do it,” says marketing manager Michael Forrest. “We are committed to developing our gluten-free options further and we are constantly on the lookout for new products which we feel would fit in to what we are trying to do. Our gluten-free onion rings have a bit of a following on their own.”

Sales of both gluten-free and wheat-free products have grown in Britain by almost 22 per cent in the past year, and the industry is now worth over £238million. For food blogger Caz Roberts, the shift has been a godsend. “In the 90s, the bread was so bad that it wasn’t even worth buying. Eating out was nearly impossible, and there really wasn’t a proper understanding of what coeliac disease or even gluten itself actually were.”

As the options across the UK started to increase, Roberts found herself relying heavily on word of mouth and online recommendations from fellow bloggers and foodies. So she set up Gluugle, an app where users can search for coeliac-friendly restaurants in their area, and add their own recommendations. She was overwhelmed by the response. “The app launched earlier this year with 1,000 listings, and this has grown to 3,000, with users adding tips on places all over the UK, and even abroad. It’s great that there’s a forum to share discoveries - say if you find a tiny tea shop in Devon with a gluten-free scone, now people can know about it.”

Roberts agrees that the ‘fad’ has been of benefit to coeliacs, but argues that it is not of the same ilk as the likes of Atkins or 5:2. “I hate that the term ‘diet’ is used for going gluten-free - it can have a negative connotation. For coeliacs, it is a medical condition, not a choice. A diabetic isn’t considered to be on a ‘diabetic diet’. For other people who have gone gluten-free, many tried it and found that they felt better. It’s not just about being trendy or losing weight.”

While there is a greater knowledge of coeliac disease in the UK, there is a downside to being lumped in with the hipsters. Go to any restaurant and ask about the gluten-free options. You will see with waiter sizing you up, trying to judge if you are the real deal, poorly or pretentious. And see them scowl when you explain you can’t have croutons on your salad, or don’t want your bread toasted. Waiters, want to know the difference? The people who really can’t have gluten will usually be the ones salivating over the dessert counter with a wistful look in their eyes. You know, the same kind of look emigrés have when talking about the fair land of their birth.

Thankfully, though, this is becoming less of a problem, and most restaurant staff will can leap to help the second you cringingly mention the dreaded ‘g’ word. There are now even restaurants that are completely gluten-free. The Truscott Arms in Maida Vale offers pub grub favourites like sausage and mash with a reassuring gluten-free label - and says their autumn menu will be almost completely gluten-free. Vozars, a sweet little eatery in Brixton Market in south-west London, boats main meals, sandwiches, WAG-free Bakery cakes (a triumph in themselves) and CELIA gluten-free lager - all gluten-free.

Martin Vozar, who set up Vozars last year in association with CELIA, says the feedback has been amazing, with the tiny restaurant scoring as high as number 13 on Tripadvisor out of 17,000 restaurants in London.

“I previously ran the first 100% gluten free restaurant in Prague, which was all about cooking delicious food that just so happened to be gluten-free rather than taking dishes and adapting them. I learnt how to promote to the gluten-free community without shouting that we are gluten-free as this puts non-coeliac customers, who love our food, off. The way we promote Vozars is ‘great food that has the benefit of being gluten-free’.”

There is a certain joy that only someone with a restricted diet will know - that of being able to walk into restaurant and be able to order anything they like off the menu. Not just the bloody salad. Now, where did I leave my fixie bike?

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