Are your favourite gluten-free products disappearing?
"Help!" she cried. "Marks and Spencer aren't stocking their gluten-free samosas and spring rolls. They haven't gone forever, have they?"
Immediately I tweeted Marks & Spencer.
Their response was swift.
"Hi Ali. I've just checked and I'm afraid these aren't available at the moment."
I went back to my online friend and broke the news. Meanwhile, Twitter cooked up a storm.
"Just adding my voice to this," said Jen Harrington. "I can't find MWW chicken tempura pieces, either."
MWW is the Made Without Wheat range that M&S does. It's fab. But it appears to be diminishing.
WelshAllergyMummy also weighed in.
"We've found the MWW range pretty slim, too. The few products we could trust have reduced even further."
I found the same in other supermarkets, too. At Xmas I popped into Waitrose and was hugely saddened to see the tiniest of gluten-free ranges. They didn't even have mince pies.
Meanwhile, more people tweeted their woes:
"Sacrificing the gluten-free range for the trendy plant-based range."
"It's not a lifestyle choice but a medical necessity!"
The latter point is one I've debated before. While I totally appreciate the difference between being coeliac (a gluten-free diet out of medical necessity) and vegan (a plant-based diet not medically required) I'm not convinced that choice is always the answer. If your religion/moral beliefs dictate you can't eat a certain type of food, it's arguably not a choice to avoid it.
So we need to look at why supermarkets are stocking fewer gluten-free items and not blaming people for it. Businesses run on what will make them a profit; they're not charities making products for people with medical needs. A few years ago, gluten-free burst onto the scene with both celebrity endorsements and a commonly held belief it was a healthier way to go. It piggy-backed the low-carb idea that naturally omits a lot of gluten-containing foods. Moreover, it was hugely beneficial for coeliacs. The freefrom range expanded at a vast rate. Instead of the lonely shelf I'd experienced in the 90s, there was now a whole aisle of dedicated gluten-free food. Hurrah!
Sadly, multiple newspaper and magazine articles dismissed the gluten-free diet as faddy, with a few citing coeliac disease as the only reason to go gluten-free. (N.B. It's not - there are other reasons (like having dermatitis herpetiformis) but I'll concede gluten's often not the guilty party when it comes to bettering the majority of the nation's diet.)
So gluten-free lost its shine. And what should replace it? Plant-based diets!
Now this is all very well and good if you're vegan. But if non-coeliacs are buying plant-based food (which, like gluten-free food, is often more expensive) then they're probably not going to be buying gluten-free food as well.
There's also the additional problem of creating a gluten-free environment. The strict laws about gluten-free products needing to be fewer than 20ppm (parts per million) means it's much easier to make something plant-based and put one of those annoying 'may contain milk' disclaimers whilst still catering for the vegan market. A vegan won't get ill from a may contain, nor will a lawsuit ensue. And getting gluten-free premises is a costly business.
So manufacturers aren't selling as many gluten-free products. They put on their profit hats and logically conclude a smaller gluten-free section is the answer.
That, my friends, means we coeliacs lose out, and there's only one way for it to change:
We need to buy up the gluten-free stuff.
In droves. Forget those people who tell you to "leave it for those who really need it". They haven't needed it or it wouldn't be there. Buy!
It's not covid-style scaremongering. Just get what you can manage to eat (and afford). But buy you must! Skip a takeaway and treat yourself to some posh nosh from the supermarket. Remind yourself how amazing their gluten-free garlic bread is. Eat the freefrom apple pie. Add custard. And cream. Indulge!
While you're at it, there's one more thing you can do. This is super important (massively important - beyond important!). To help keep your favourite products on the shelf you need to ensure other people know about them, too. The best way to do this to a mass audience is to post images on social media and shout about how great it is.
I'll give you an example...
If Gluten-Free Galway Girl hadn't posted an image on Instagram of the latest All Real protein bars, I'd never have known they existed. I immediately bought a box of their bars and (this is the genius part) subscribed to receive a box every month, which means I don't have to remember to order ever again: the boxes will simply come through the letterbox - amazing!
So now it's your turn. When you find a gluten-free food you love, it's time for the obligatory dinner pic. Camera phones at the ready! And it's possible to do it within 60 seconds. That's a minute of your time to ensure you can still get great gluten-free options, especially if you can get a shot of gravy oozing out of a gluten-free pie or a rich, creamy sauce pouring over a yummy pudding. (Btw, if this sounds impossible, just posting about a product you love works wonders. Don't feel you have to channel your inner David Bailey.)
As for M&S, they informed me they'd "share with our Food Team that you'd love to see a wider range of gluten-free items."
My fear? They'll debate the gluten-free range and draw a sad conclusion. Plant-based items are doing so much better that the only financially safe conclusion is to put more effort in providing for vegans.
So let's stop that from happening. Remember:
Buy an amazing gluten-free product (or ten).
Take a photo.
Boast about it on social media.
Watch prevalence of gluten-free products soar.