Happy Anniversary to Candie’s adventures in gluten free land.

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I just received a notification from my wordpress publishing platform saying ”Happy Anniversary”.

It has been exactly 1 year since I started writing on my blog. Exactly 1 year since I started writing anything really.

It was all thanks to a competition in a popular local magazine in which they invited people to submit articles about any subject of their choice. The winning article was to be featured on the magazine as a prize. I wrote an article to help raise awareness about the gluten free diet and coeliac disease, and I thought that if I won, it would be something to help spread the word.

Well, I didn’t win the competition, but I did catch the writing bug. I started this blog and began sharing my posts on my Facebook page, The Coeliac Hub. I also started to write for eve, another local online magazine (eve.com.mt), and one off articles were published on The Sunday Times of Malta and Elephant journal, a US based online journal.

I did end up sharing most of the information that was included in my original competition piece through other articles  and on my Facebook page, but for today, I think it is fitting that I share my original article that was submitted for the competition. In it I spoke a little about the new legislation with respect to food sold unpackaged. This legislation coincidentally will be coming into effect on the 13th of December this year. I have altered the last paragraph slightly, since the requirements for catering establishments selling food unpackaged have now been made clear. So take a few minutes to read my original article. I hope that with my writing and efforts I can contribute to spreading awareness about gluten related disorders and the diet we have to follow.

The truth behind ‘gluten-free’ claims.

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A few weeks ago, a question was asked on a popular Maltese Facebook group, regarding which restaurants in Malta truly cater to a gluten-free diet. Among the replies, a manager said that his restaurant offers gluten-free bread and pasta, while another member stated that a particular restaurant caters to a gluten-free diet, simply because there was a sign outside the restaurant stating so. These replies served to further fuel my doubts about whether people working in the catering industry in Malta truly know what this diet entails, and if their information is based on facts or on inaccuracies aided by the current gluten-free craze.

The gluten-free diet has gained popularity in recent years. Gluten-free products are being marketed as healthy, and some people are following the diet simply to lose weight. Although eating products that are naturally free from gluten may or may not lead to weight loss, replacing gluten containing products with their packaged gluten-free counterparts definitely will not. I have been following a gluten-free diet for years, and my dreams of becoming a ‘bikini-tastic’ Victoria’s secret model have long been gobbled up by my ever increasing waistline. Gluten-free products tend to be high in sodium and saturated fat. They may also be lower in fiber, iron, folic acid and B vitamins. In fact, no benefit has been found in excluding gluten from the diet when there is no medical condition to warrant such elimination.

Conversely, for approximately 1% of the population who suffer from Coeliac disease, abstaining from gluten is not an option but a necessity. For these individuals, even crumbs of gluten can trigger an autoimmune reaction. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and their derivatives. Oats are often contaminated with gluten during harvesting and packaging.

Contrary to popular belief, Coeliac disease is neither an allergy nor an intolerance. According to Coeliac UK, it is a well-defined, serious illness where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut, and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Symptoms vary from mild to severe, and can include gastrointestinal symptoms, joint pains, anaemia and vitamin deficiencies, infertility, repeated miscarriages, hair loss, tooth decay, osteoporosis and others. If untreated, there is a higher risk of bowel cancer or lymphoma. Even when there are no observable symptoms, the same damage occurs in the small intestine when gluten in consumed. The only treatment is a lifelong strict gluten-free diet. It occurs in genetically predisposed individuals who had some form of trigger to set off the condition.

Thanks to the rise in popularity of the diet, the gluten-free industry has literally exploded, with an ever increasing range of products available.  According to EU law, as from the 1st of January, 2012, pre-packaged food products that are specifically designed to meet the dietary needs of people who cannot consume gluten have to be labelled as either ‘’very low gluten’’ if they contain a level of gluten not exceeding 100mg/kg, or ‘’gluten-free’’ if they contain a level of gluten not exceeding 20 mg/kg. That means that for a product to be gluten-free it must have less than 20 parts per million or 1 part per 50,000. So if you imagine a slice of bread split into 50,000 parts, you can understand why a few crumbs would make a person with Coeliac disease ill.

Even in Malta, more and more restaurants and businesses are claiming to serve gluten-free food.  However, with no regulatory body monitoring this, anybody can put a gluten-free claim on their product. The standard answer when asked about catering for this diet is often: ’’of course, we have gluten-free bread and pasta!’’.

This reply shows utter lack of knowledge about the complexity of preparing a gluten-free meal or product. Gluten is not only found in the obvious products, but is hidden in many food items. The list is endless, but some examples include stock cubes, soy sauce, frozen chips and sausages. Cross contamination must be avoided in food preparation, so utensils and work surfaces should either be separate, or thoroughly cleaned, and new oils for frying should be used. At the end of 2014, the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 will be introduced that will require food businesses to provide allergy information on food sold unpackaged, in for example catering outlets, bakeries and sandwich bars. Any meals claiming the gluten-free label will have to be gluten free (although testing of individual dishes is not a requirement). This means that stringent procedures will have to be put into action to minimize and control cross contamination. This is going to make it more difficult for catering establishments to continue claiming that they serve gluten-free food unless they do take steps to control cross contamination, ensure proper training is in place for all staff, ensure that there is excellent communication, and unless they have proper record keeping and reputable suppliers.

Although certain establishments do already make efforts to truly cater for a gluten-free diet, too many others are misinformed. I have been told by a restaurant owner that a little bread will not kill me because other supposed ‘’Coeliacs’’ ate bread and were fine. For many a dish is gluten-free if it does not contain wheat flour. Some seem to have difficulty separating the facts from the fad. I am sure many have personal stories of feeling great when dropping gluten from their diet. But the danger for a Coeliac arises when catering staff obtain information from people who self diagnose based on the experiences of others, only to eat a slice of their favourite gluten containing cake, or a slice of Maltese bread because they simply cannot resist it.

The new legislation will come as a welcome relief to Coeliacs, as well as those with gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy. They will be able to make informed choices, not only in the supermarket aisle, but also when buying unpackaged products and dining out.

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photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/oldpatterns/4878353008/”>Peter E. Lee</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

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