Let’s start by defining gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found in three types of grain:
- breakfast cereals
Gluten can also sometimes be found in less obvious foods. This can include, for example, chips (when dusted with wheat flour before cooking) and certain condiments and sauces. Gluten is present in most beers, but not in ciders, wines and spirits.
Most people are able to handle gluten just fine. It can be part of a healthy diet. However, if you have coeliac disease, your body mistakes gluten for something harmful. This triggers a response from your immune system. Your small intestine – which absorbs nutrients from food as it passes through your digestive system – essentially attacks itself. In my case, this made me anaemic, because the damage to my gut wall meant that I wasn’t absorbing enough iron.
My low iron count was only noticed when I went to donate blood. My GP arranged a blood test and then referred me for a gastroscopy, during which a small sample of tissue (a biopsy) was taken from my small intestine. This was used alongside the blood test results to confirm the diagnosis.
“In the short term,” explains Bupa Dietitian Rachael Eden, “the reaction to gluten when you have coeliac disease can cause you uncomfortable side-effects, such as bloating or constipation. But the really important effect is the long-term one. When you eat even small amounts of gluten, you’re stopping your gut from recovering. If the gut stays damaged, it can eventually lead to serious problems, including osteoporosis and potentially an increased risk of cancer.”
The good news is that people who have coeliac disease can treat it by completely avoiding food and drink that contains gluten. Eventually the gut will heal and return to normal in most cases. However, the diet needs to be followed strictly for the rest of your life to avoid any problems. “It’s always worth sticking to the diet as much as you can,” says Rachael. “You need to take it quite seriously.”
Getting started with gluten-free baking
There are lots of different gluten-free flours out there that can work well for baking. Popular ones include:
- rice flour
- coconut flour
- corn-flour for savoury bakes
“Try out a few different types,” Rachael suggests. “Each type of flour tastes different and some are more suitable for baking than others.
“A lot of gluten-free recipes also suggest using an ingredient called xanathan gum. This helps to thicken the texture of your bake and gives a bit of the bouncy texture back that you would have got from gluten.
“Remember, though, that it’s not always as simple as replacing wheat flour for a gluten-free flour. They absorb moisture differently and this can affect the whole recipe. Have a look at some tailor-made recipes.”
You may also be able to bake with oats. Most coeliacs can tolerate oats and they don’t contain gluten. However, they do contain avenin, which is a similar protein that causes a reaction in some coeliacs. Oats are also often produced in the same environment as other grains, so if you do use them, you need to make sure they are labelled gluten free.
Coeliac UK’s coconut and sultana flapjacks
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 25–30 minutes
- 200g (7oz) butter or margarine
- 200g (7oz) demerara sugar
- 2 tbsp (30g) golden syrup
- 275g (9½oz) buckwheat flakes (labelled gluten free)
- 100g (3½oz) desiccated coconut
- 100g (3½oz) sultanas
- 1 tsp (5g) ground cinnamon
- Preheat your oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.
- Grease and line 8” x 10” baking tin with butter and baking parchment.
- In a pan, melt the butter and sugar, together with the golden syrup.
- Add the melted mixture to the buckwheat flakes, coconut, sultanas, and cinnamon, and mix all the ingredients together.
- Spoon your mixture into your prepared tray baking tin. Make sure it is evenly pressed down.
- Put the tray into the oven for about 25 minutes or until the mixture is golden.
- Once done, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes. Then cut into slices and placing on a cooling rack.
This recipe was kindly shared with us by Coeliac UK. The charity’s Director of Membership and Services, Annette Woolman, says: “For the last 50 years, Coeliac UK has been leading the way in all things gluten free, supporting the growing community, raising awareness and helping to improve diagnosis. As a membership charity, we’re dedicated to delivering outstanding support and services to help people live a healthier, happier life gluten free. Yearly membership costs less than a cup of coffee out each month, and has been invaluable in helping those on a gluten-free diet with the challenges of shopping, cooking and eating out. You can find our more on the Coeliac UK website.”
Tips on baking safely
Avoiding cross-contamination can be difficult when you have coeliac disease. This is where small amounts of gluten accidentally get into your food. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind while you get ready to bake.
- Clean any surfaces, utensils and baking trays thoroughly before you start.
- If you’re using spreadable ingredients like butter and jam, use a separate tub to anyone you share them with who does eat gluten. Chances are, they’ve probably ‘double dipped’ with their knife at some point, leaving behind bread crumbs or traces of gluten.
- Make completely sure your ingredients are gluten free. It’s not always obvious! By law, food manufacturers need to list wheat, rye, barley or any other ingredients that could cause a reaction in bold on the packaging.
Diagnosing coeliac disease
Coeliac disease affects around one in every 100 people. It’s more common for people who have a family member with the condition. The signs of coeliac disease can include:
- regularly feeling very bloated
- having digestive problems like constipation or diarrhoea
- being anaemic
- regularly feeling very tired and worn down
If you do have these symptoms, it’s really important to speak to your GP to find out exactly what’s happening, rather than trying to self-diagnose. The same symptoms can also be a sign of other health conditions. It’s also important to keep eating gluten until any tests have been done, otherwise it may skew the results. Before seeing your GP, you could complete Coeliac UK’s online assessment – it can help you give your GP more details when they assess your symptoms.
We also have more information about coeliac disease on the Bupa website that you may find helpful.
Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health. You’ll receive a personalised lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a healthier, happier you.