For some, giving up gluten is medical requirement, but many others are cutting it out for less clear-cut reasons. Don’t be too hasty.

After years on the margins of the healthy eating scene, free-from diets are now firmly in the mainstream. Today it’s easy to buy a gluten-free sandwich from Marks & Spencer, a soya latte at Starbucks, or order a pizza with a gluten-free base at Pizza Express. It’s the same story at supermarkets, where big brands such as Heinz and Warburtons have bought their way into a market that’s worth £365 million according to Mintel – and is predicted to double by 2019.


Tesco offers 350 products in its own-brand-free-from range alone – not bad for food once restricted to niche health food stores. This is great news for people with medically diagnosed condition that requires them to cut out certain foods. Yet Mintel says theses customers aren’t the people causing the category to grow so quickly.


Instead, its rise is down to a new generation of health-conscious consumers who inspired by the glossy free-from lifestyle showcased by bloggers like Deliciously Ella and Hemsley + Hemsley, are experimenting with giving up certain foods or food groups. So how healthy is it to shut staples such as regular bread and milk ? And does a free-from label on packaging make a product good for you ? Our experts present the facts.






This autoimmune disease is triggered by eating gluten. Around 1 in 100 people suffer with the condition but only 24% of these have been medically diagnosed.


  • The symptoms: “There can be a wide range of symptoms, often involving the gut, such as flatulence and wind, but they can also include mouth ulcers or fatigue,” explains Norma McGough, director of policy, research and campaigns at Coeliac UK. The charity offers an online assessment.


  • What you need to avoid: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, so it’s found in many foods including bread, cakes, cereals and pasta, but also in less obvious products that contain flour such as soy sauce and sausages. There is no cure for coeliac disease, although the damage to the gut can be reversed by avoiding all foods that contain gluten. A gluten-free diet needs to be followed for life.


If you have a FOOD ALLERGY


This occurs when the body’s immune system reacts unusually to a certain food. According to Mintel, around 8% of people in the UK say someone in their household avoids lactose or dairy, and around 7% wheat or gluten due to an allergy or intolerance. In reality, says the British Nutrition Foundation, just 1-2% of people have a specific food allergy.


  • The symptoms: These vary, from mild itchiness and rashes to vomiting and serious anaphylactic reactions that require immediate medical help.
  • What you need to avoid: Quite simply, whatever causes the reaction. In theory you can have an allergic reaction to any food but certain foods tend to be more common triggers. These include cereals containing gluten, milk, eggs, nuts, soya, fish and shellfish.




Unlike an allergy, food intolerances tend not to involve the immune system – often symptoms come on slowly, long after the sufferer has eaten. A food intolerance can be difficult to diagnose.


  • The symptoms: Usually digestive problems, such as bloating, stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
  • What you need to avoid: It depends on what’s causing the intolerance. For, instance lactose intolerance occurs when someone can’t digest the lactose that occurs naturally in milk and dairy products.




“While they’re really helpful for people who have a genuine reason to cut out specific foods or ingredients, free-from options aren’t necessarily always healthier than the standard version,” explains Bridget Benelam, Healthy Food Guide expert and nutrition scientist, ” Some gluten-free breads and cakes, for instance, may be higher in saturated fat, salt or calories.”


The extras to watch for


As with standard packaged food, sugar and salt is often added to free-from products to give them a moreish flavour. Fat is often added to ensure free-from substitutes look like the real thing.


“Many of the fresh breads that have appeared on the market are basically cake mixes,” says McGough. “Gluten helps to give baked goods their structure, so when you remove it you have to add extra fat to make it hold its shape.”


Bottom line: check product labels for sugar, fat and calories before you buy.




One of the big problems with free-from diets is that cutting out a major group of foods can leave you short of staples such as bread or milk.


“It’s not advisable to give important food groups without good reason as this puts you at risk of not getting all the nutritients your body needs to be healthy, ” says Benelam.


You’re particularly at risk if you decide to follow a special diet, such as dairy free, in an attempt to lose weight quickly. In the short term, this can lead to symptoms such as low energy, headaches and irritability. in the longer-term, going without dairy can lead to conditions such as osteoporosis. It’s therefore essential you find a way to compensate for these nutrients, preferably in partnership with a health professional.


Your two-step plan


“Staying healthy on a free-from diet involves two steps,” says Healthy Food Guide nutrition consultant Juliette Kellow. “The first is to identify the nutrients you’ll be missing out on if you avoid a specific group of foods and work out how you’re going to replace them.”


“The second is to make sure what you’re putting back in is going to boost your health rather than detract from it – in other words, your free-from diet still follows the basic rules of healthy eating and doesn’t become overloaded with fat, saturates, sugar or salt.”


If you’re cutting out gluten…


“You may lose out on the fibre and B vitamins found in wholegrain food,” says dietician Helen Bond. “But there’s a lot of different food that can help you compensate. Nuts and seeds provide plenty of fibre, as do jacket potatoes, quinoa, brown rice and a variety of fruit and vegetables.”


B vitamins are found widely in food, so as long as you still eat a varied diet you should be able to get enough.


If you’re cutting out dairy…


“The main thing to worry about is a lack of calcium,” say Bond. “Milk is the most readily absorbed form of calcium and is really important for strengthening teeth and developing strong bones.”


Beans, lentils, oranges and green leafy vegetables, as well as a variety of nuts and seeds, can all help keep the body topped up with this essential nutrient. Milk alternatives, such as fortified oat or soya milks, should also be central to your diet: but it’s essential to choose brands that have added calcium.


Don’t fall into ‘healthy biscuit’ trap


Store-bought free-from cakes and biscuits usually contain just as much sugar and fat as traditional versions (if not more). In other words, following a free-from diet doesn’t give you licence to stock up on foods you probably wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) eat anyway.


“The small amount of high-fat, high-sugar foods you eat should remain the same regardless of whether you’re following a free-from diet or not,” says Kellow.




In the past, manufacturers often had to sacrifice taste and texture in order to make a food free from. For instance, using wheat-free flour can give a tougher, less flexible texture and a slightly artificial taste. However, as demand has grown, brands are becoming better at replicating standard food.


The trend for naturally free from


“Expectations are certainly higher these days,” says Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, who organises the annual FreeFrom Food Awards. She says the trend is for brands to use ‘naturally free-from’ ingredients, which offer a gluten-free alternative that doesn’t rely on excess sugar or additives, “Now people don’t want a mile-long ingredients list,” she says.


“That’s why we’re seeing grains such as quinoa being used in products such as ready meals rather than gluten-free pasta.”


Some brands even use gluten-free substitutes to improve standard products. For example Marks & Spencer has always used gluten-free breadcrumbs in its sausages as customers prefer the texture.




Branded free-from products usually come with a hefty premium. For example, a loaf of Asda wholemeal bread costs 55p, whereas the supermarket’s own-brand free-from brown bread weighs in at £1.50* – and the loaf is a third smaller. This extra cost reflects the fact that it’s more expensive to produce.


“To make gluten-free bread you have to use different kinds of flour, which are more expensive to source,” says Berriedale-Johnson.


“The bread is also more difficult to make and, ultimately, the number of customers likely to buy it is smaller. This means free-from foods tend to attract a premium. However, I think that as more people buy them and volumes go up, the price will eventually come down.”




Type ‘gluten-free or dairy-free diet’ into a search engine and you’ll find endless pages devoted to diagnosing various allergies and intolerances. The only problem is that the information some of them offer could be completely wrong.


“The best advice on diet and nutrition will undoubtedly come from properly qualified health professionals, such as your as GP, hospital consultant or a registered dietician, so stick with what they tell you,” says Kellow. “No one should ever diagnose themselves with an intolerance or allergy.”


Symptoms such as bloating or constipation could be a sign of any number of medical problems, ranging from an intolerance to lactose or coeliac disease, through to colitis or even bowel cancer, so it’s vital to get a professional diagnosis before cutting out foods.


Bloating or overeating ?


So why do people say they feel better after cutting out gluten ?


“Bloating can also be down to overeating,” says Kellow. “You may cut bread and pasta from your diet, start to feel better and assume you have an allergy to these foods. The improvement in health may simply be down the fact that you’re eating less food and don’t feel so full, which you’d mistaken for bloating.”




If you suspect you may have an allergy or intolerance, Healthy Food Guide experts agree you should see your GP. Home testing kits are available on the high street and online, but the scientific principles they rely on are so far unproven and independent reviews have shown them to be unreliable.


A GP is also best placed to give you the right advice after diagnosis.


“Coeliac disease is a serious disease that requires proper medical attention. You need a clear diagnosis with the right support and after care,” says McGough.


Prepare for your appointment


Keeping a food diary can help your GP pinpoint what the issue might be.


“Before your appointment take a note of what you eat and your symptoms, including how quickly they came on and how long they lasted,” says Benelux. “Tests may include a skin prick test, a blood test or an elimination diet to check the effects of excluding a food or ingredient.”


Before you see your GP, it’s vital not to radically change your diet, especially if you have suspected coeliac disease. This is because the initial test for coeliac disease looks for certain antibodies in the blood, which will only be there if you’ve been eating gluten. If you cut it out before having this test, the antibodies may not be there and the condition could be missed. If the antibodies are detected you’ll be referred for a biopsy to look for the characteristic damage to the gut caused by gluten.


PS: I’d love to know if you found these tips helpful, a good one to look at would be especially the tip about not falling short on staples, hit me up in the comment section or alternatively drop me a message. I answer every email, just ask.

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