Gluten intolerance is a serious condition, but all these fad-followers are making a mockery of it
Ordering gluten-free food has gone from being a preventative measure for coeliac sufferers to becoming a fashionable fad. It's rare to go to a restaurant now without hearing someone ordering gluten-free dishes.
But instead of this being a necessity because of gluten intolerance, people are now following gluten-free diets in their droves in an delusional effort to lose weight, prevent bloating or simply because their favourite celebrities are doing so and they believe it's 'cool'.
Gluten-free food is now outselling all other diet foods. One in four shoppers are buying gluten-free bread, but just a minority of those has any proven intolerance.
People claim to be gluten intolerant or coeliac because they feel a bit bloated after eating bread. They have no idea what the reality of being intolerant really means.
Coeliac disease is an auto-immune condition causing adults and children to react to the gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. If a person with coeliac disease eats gluten, the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, reducing their ability to absorb the nutrients from food.
This can lead to various symptoms including chronic tiredness, depression, infertility, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, failure to thrive in children, chronic mouth ulcers, recurrent miscarriages - the list is long and extremely serious.
Gluten is difficult to avoid as it is found in bread, biscuits, cakes, pasta, beer, pizza and in many other manufactured foods. Gluten is often contained in soups, sauces, gravy, salad dressings, crisps, chocolate, sweets and 'ready meals'.
The seriousness of coeliac disease is why it so important for people to stop claiming they are gluten intolerant when they aren't. They are causing problems for people whose health is seriously endangered by gluten.
Martin Healy, founder of the Fitzwilliam Foodtest clinic, says that 1pc of the Irish population suffers from coeliac disease. Ireland has a higher percentage of coeliac sufferers than anywhere else in Europe.
A study in University College Cork found that for every 10 people buying gluten-free foods, just one had coeliac disease.
Chefs are becoming irate with customers insisting on gluten-free meals because of their alleged gluten intolerance. They know that for many customers it's a dietary preference as opposed to a dietary requirement.
Cross contamination in a kitchen is very hard to avoid and chefs preparing gluten-free food have to be extremely careful. For example, you could not use the same toaster to toast gluten-free bread and non-gluten-free bread. You can't use the same knife, chopping board, strainer or rolling pin.
Chefs even need to be vigilant for airborne gluten, as wheat-containing flour remains airborne and can contaminate surfaces and other nearby gluten-free items.
Recently a Dublin café got so fed-up that they are now asking customers to produce a doctor's note for gluten-free food. Staff at the White Moose Café in Phibsborough are sick and tired of being asked for gluten-free options by people they believe are just "following a fad". In order to stop it, they have demanded that those ordering such foods have medical proof of their condition in order to be served it.
In a statement, owner Paul Stenson said the demand came about after a woman asked for gluten-free pancakes - despite not knowing what coeliac meant.
"This morning a girl asked us if we did gluten-free pancakes," he said. "When we asked her if she was a coeliac, she didn't even know what the word meant."
Until now, it was claimed that gluten intolerance was the result of babies not being breastfed, or of having gluten introduced into their diet too young. However, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have discovered that it is not when gluten is introduced but rather the amount of gluten in your diet that causes coeliac disease.
Swedish children, whose reported daily intake of gluten was high (more than five grams) up to the age of two years, had twice the risk of developing coeliac disease compared to children who consumed a smaller amount.
So it would appear that 'everything in moderation' applies to gluten too. Cutting gluten out of your diet is not a good idea, but neither is eating large quantities of it. Isn't that just common sense?
There is a huge misconception that gluten-free products are superior and that gluten causes weight gain. Some gluten-free products actually contain higher levels of fat and sugar to make them taste better, and have a host of other additives - including starches and binding agents.
There has been no increase in the numbers of those suffering coeliac disease in the past six years, yet those on a gluten-free diet have risen threefold.
The growing popularity of gluten-free diets, endorsed by celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Victoria Beckham, has been driven by fashion and lifestyle choices rather than diagnosed health problems.
It's time for people to stop claiming that they are gluten intolerant and let the real coeliac sufferers be looked after by chefs and the food industry.
They need to find a new fad, one that doesn't cause havoc for genuinely sick people.