Those of you who watched Channel 5’s Secrets of the Supermarkets last night will no doubt, like Alex Gazzola, be fuming this morning…. Alex was so cross with Chris Young, the Real Bread Campaign’s spokesman who appeared on the programme, that he had already leapt into print on his Allergy Insight blog last night.
I have no problem with people asking why gluten free food and gluten free bread in particular is significantly more expensive than non-gluten free – or asking whether gluten-free foods are intrinsically healthier than non gluten-free. But having asked the question one needs to give both parties to the discussion a chance to put their points – and the programme did not.
Alex was understandably cross with a bread expert who said that since it was impossible to make bread without gluten, any bread that contained anything other than wheat flour, water, yeast and salt (i.e. all of those gluten-free breads which, because they are gluten free, doh…. do not contain gluten) was not bread. Do read his blog – he makes really good points.
However, this raises two issues.
1. What if you cannot eat gluten?
2. And what about all other breads out there which contain a good deal more that just wheat flour, water, yeast and salt?
So before going overboard on gluten free bread, maybe Chris Young should also have taken a pop at the 95% of non-gluten free bread on supermarket shelves. It also contains good deal more than flour, water, yeast and salt – including several of the ‘chemicals’ that he was condemning in gluten free breads. For example E471 and 472e (Mono- & di- glycerides of fatty acids and mono and diacetyltartaric acid esters of Mono- & di- glycerides of fatty acids), were both among the ingredients of a loaf of Kingsmill 50/50 I looked at in the local corner shop this morning – both fatty acids which, like the E464 highlighted in the gluten free bread on the programme (hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose) are universally recognised to be ‘safe’ ingredients for human consumption.
And if, as Chris Young maintains, making ‘real’ bread with gluten is impossible – what are those who cannot eat gluten, and those who try to create food for them, meant to do? Just cut bread, the staff of life, out of their diet altogether? Or try to find some way, with the help of other natural grains and, perish the thought, even a bit of science, to create something which is at least a reasonable simulacrum or ‘real’ bread?
Why is gluten-free food more expensive?
But while Alex was especially infuriated by the Real Bread man, I was more disappointed by Joanna Blythman, a journalist and food campaigner who I respect enormously. Instead of asking why gluten free food, and bread in particular, was more expensive than non-gluten free, she made the cheap assumption that supermarkets and the gluten-free bread brands were just ‘jumping on the gluten-free gravy train’.
In fact, gluten free food – and gluten free bread in particular – is significantly more expensive to make than non gluten free so the gravy train that its makers are meant to be on is a pretty thin one. The last time this subject came up a few years ago, Lucinda Bruce Gardyne, the founder of the Genius Gluten Free brand, actually wrote a piece for us explaining where the high costs arise – you can read it here – but essentially:
- Ingredients. The wheat flour that is used in ‘normal’ bread is produced in vast quantities in UK mills with all of the savings that bulk production and delivery brings with it. All of those different flours that Chris Young mentioned as being used in gluten free bread are more expensive than standard wheat flour, more difficult to get (often needing to be imported) and come in far small quantities – and are therefore significantly more expensive.
- Replacing gluten – to try to recreate the stretchiness of gluten you need many more ingredients – up to 20 – many of which have not been designed for bread making so need further processing.
- Traceability – all of these ingredient have to go through strict non contamination tests which are not required for ‘normal’ bread ingredients.
- Technical costs – a large modern wheat flour bread factory is highly automated and all but runs itself. Production units for gluten-free bread are very much smaller and less automated, requiring higher staffing levels.
The complexity of making gluten-free bread also requires constant supervision and even so, there are high levels of product rejection and therefore scrappage.
I am certainly not saying that there are no ‘freefrom’ manufacturers who push the price limits a bit – it will also be so. But maybe both Joanna and the programme should have looked a little more carefully into what was involved in making gluten-free products before branding them as a universal ‘rip-off’.
And finally to the ‘is gluten free healthier’ question.
The British Retail Consortium at the end of the programme gave a statement to the effect that the industry does not represent ‘freefrom’ foods as being healthier. The ‘healthier’ claims came from the media, lifestyle coaches and celebrities – which is essentially true.
My personal explanation of why so many people believe that they are healthier on a gluten free diet is that the improvement in their health is only marginally to do with cutting out gluten. How come? Well….
- In order to cut out gluten you have to start paying serious attention to what you are eating, which includes reading ingredients labels. Many people are rather shocked by what they find on the ingredient labels of their favourite foods and therefore decide to cut down on them.
- If you are going to genuinely follow a gluten free diet you will not be able to eat many of the ready made products which may have formed a large part of your diet. You will therefore be forced to cook more from scratch or, at the very least, to eat more fruit, vegetables and salads which are already gluten free. De facto, a healthier diet.
- If you have started looking at your diet that will almost inevitably cause you to look at the rest of your life style. If you are doing the diet, why not go for it and clean up your act more generally.
As a result you may decide to take a bit more exercise (walk, go to the gym, climb the stairs instead of taking the lift), drink or smoke a bit less, got to bed earlier/get more sleep – maybe even got to the mindfulness or yoga class that you have been thinking about for ages.
- All of which these have a beneficial effect on your health and you will feel better. But because the trigger was trying a gluten-free diet, that is what gets the credit for the improvement.
This is an important subject. No one in the freefrom world actually wants to rip off any one. Ninety per cent of the manufacturers in this area are there because they, their family, or someone they know has a genuine deitary problem and they want to help.
Yes, of course they want to make money too – we all have to live – but unlike in so many other industries, their motivation is not just the bottom line. If they can make the products healthier and cheaper, they will do so – but they have to be able to make living doing so. If they can’t the products will not exist at all. And that would impact very seriously of the quality of life of those who, for genuine medical reasons, do need to eat gluten free.