Gluten-free: all about gluten


I’m starting with gluten, and what it means to be gluten-free, because there’s so much info on it but it’s a bit new to me. Jerry has tested negative for coeliac disease (blood tests), but does react adversely to wheat*, so we’ve found the gluten-free movement incredibly helpful in bringing wheat-free products to the foreground. Nonetheless I’ve had to learn a lot about gluten-free, specifically for this project.

As an aside, we have recently been experimenting with adding gluten back into wheat-free flour. With Jerry avoiding both wheat and eggs, this has made baking so much easier. However, the jury’s out on whether this truly provides a healthy alternative for him. Back to gluten-free…

What the legislation say about labelling:

Cereals containing gluten, namely: wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains, and products thereof, except:

(a) wheat based glucose syrups including dextrose;

(b) wheat based maltodextrins;

(c) glucose syrups based on barley;

(d) cereals used for making alcoholic distillates including ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin.

Issue 1: Oats

The ironic thing is, oats don’t contain gluten – they contain a similar protein but one which, according to coeliac uk, most sufferers can eat (but of course it’s perfectly possible that you’ve also got issues with eating avenin – I am not a doctor recommending that you try).

The reason most oats aren’t gluten-free is because they’ve a high risk of cross-contamination. So should we be consistent in the way we treat oats, and use ‘may contain’ warnings much like we do with nuts, milk, soya etc?

However, because the legislation calls out oats as a gluten-containing cereal, they have to be labelled. Hence we have the unusual situation of products labelled as containing ‘gluten-free oats‘, where the oats are listed as a top 14 allergen (because it’s a cereal containing gluten… even though it’s not). Time for a legislation update?!

Issue 2: Beer

Next we head onto gluten-free beer. Again we have a bolded ingredient on the back of every single bottle in our local supermarket – this time it’s barley.  Now here I’ve found it much harder to unpick than oats:  most of the rest of the world also seems confused.

It appears that brewers have two choices:

  • make ‘beer’ from something other than ingredients containing naturally-occurring gluten (and risk not being able to call it beer) or
  • make normal beer and try to remove the gluten afterwards.

    In the USA they seem to not allow this removal of gluten malarkey, but we seem to think it’s alright in Europe, and this seems to be the popular choice for gluten-free beer available in our shops. But barley malt extract, which appears to be any barley gone through the brewing process, has to be at less than 20ppm if in a gluten-free product, and to be considered safe for coeliac sufferers, again according to coeliac uk.

All this seems to mean that gluten-free beer on the whole isn’t gluten-free but has levels low enough not to affect most people. I think?

Issue 3: Wheat

OK I’m cheating a bit here, because I’m going to write a bit that’s not all about gluten. But hey. Despite wheat not being in the top 14 allergens per se, lots of products are labelled ‘gluten and wheat free‘, which makes me think there must be other people who are specifically avoiding wheat, rather than gluten. I used to think this was because you could remove gluten from wheat, although I haven’t seen it (let me know if you have). I read that 30% of bakery staff develop an allergy to wheat, which seems pretty incredible. So it’s dangerous (but yummy) stuff. If you want to add to my knowledge about what people are really allergic too, head over to my data collection blog.

Thanks for reading this part of my series on the top 14 allergens. To find out what I’ve learnt about the other 13 please head back to the blog series home.

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