Originally designed to meet the needs of those suffering from coeliac disease, ‘gluten-free’ is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Beckham are among the many well-known proponents of the no-gluten diet. Our supermarkets have ever-growing free-from sections, and the pages of menus and cookbooks are filled with gluten-free dishes.
Whether being championed as a crucial revolution in healthy living, or derided as a middle-class dietary fad, gluten-free food is everywhere, occupying our minds, our media and our shelves.
Fifteen years ago, things were very different. When her daughter was diagnosed with coeliac disease at 14 months, Sally Black, one half of Five Oak Green-based gluten-free kitchen Oast to Host, had no idea what she was in for.
“I’d never heard of coeliac disease before”, said Mrs Black. “But we were lucky. My daughter’s never known anything else.”
With fresh gluten-free products hard to find, and digestible recipes thin on the ground, Mrs Black was compelled to experiment.
She said: “There was a lot of trial and error at first. I just kept plugging away.”
The desired reward for these endeavours was a healthy and happy daughter; making and selling award-winning products with business partner Claire Forster is the icing on the cake.
The partnership started when Mrs Forster responded to an advert for a pudding stall at the Tunbridge Wells farmers’ market. When the woman helping her pulled out, Mrs Black stepped in, offering to make a few desserts for the stall.
“I had to make them gluten-free so if they didn’t sell I could take them home for my daughter,” she explained.
Through the union of Mrs Black’s gluten-free culinary expertise and Mrs Forster’s bakery training and cake-making skills, Oast to Host was born.
“The farmers’ market was so useful for getting feedback”, said Mrs Forster. “And to help us find out if there was a market for our products out there.”
“We got known a little and were able to try out new things and see what the response was.”
After two productive years at the town hall, the pair withdrew their stall 12 months ago.
“We were advised to make a brand and go in to retail”, Mrs Forster said.
“We wanted more people to enjoy our products. And, because our products are fresh, anything we didn’t sell at the stall we had to eat or throw away.
“It made more sense for us to make to order.”
After a year of brand-crafting and perfecting packaging, Oast to Host is now fully focused on filling those orders.
Mrs Forster said: “Last year was about branding. This year’s about getting it out there.”
The driving force behind it all is a desire to fill a gap in the market and redress a long-standing imbalance. Even today, when gluten-free products are among the trendiest, most profitable and fastest growing in the industry, they invariably seem like the poor cousin next to their gluten-rich counterparts.
“Most gluten-free pastries are hard to handle, taste bad and dissolve in the mouth”, said Mrs Black.
Mrs Forster added, “They’re usually bland, sugary and palm oiltasting.”
Oast to Host’s goal is clear: to make good-tasting gluten-free food that’s also good for you. Not just to close the gap between glutenfree and non gluten-free products, but to open one up on the other side.
“I want everyone to be jealous of the coeliac”, said Mrs Forster. “Leaning over and asking, can I have some of that?”
The aim of making food that tastes good has clearly been achieved. Of the four products the pair entered for the 2013 Great Taste awards, three were winners: the sweet shortcrust pastry, the walnut tart and the pistachio, almond and cranberry biscotti.
“We weren’t expecting to win anything,” said Mrs Black. “But they have to give you detailed, professional feedback. That’s why we entered. We ended up winning three awards!”
As for the aim of making food that’s also good for you, the lists of ingredients are far shorter than those of most mass-produced alternatives, thanks to the conspicuous absence of chemical additives. And they go easy on the sugar.
“Diabetes can be secondary to coeliac disease”, explained Mrs Forster.
“Everywhere people with it go, all they seem to be offered is a brownie or a lemon slice, which are usually loaded with sugar to help the taste.”
“Our brownies have less sugar than nearly all gluten-free equivalents”, added Mrs Black. “And because coeliacs are rarely offered anything savoury, we make quiches too.”
The realisation of these twin aims seems to be closing the gap as intended.
Sally Black said: “We’ve got eight trays of millionaire dessert here all going to one cafe. They don’t even put up a sign telling customers it’s gluten free.”
And millionaires could be the key to future riches. Oast to Host’s latest venture is a delivery service which will bring an individual, personalised ‘millionaire’s mistress’ to your door.
“They’ve got longer shelf life than a cupcake and can be posted as a large letter,” Mrs Forster explained. “No more going to the Post Office to collect a cake only to find the buttercream all over the place!”
Despite their investment and belief in gluten-free treats, Mrs Black and Mrs Forster are keen to point out that cutting out gluten isn’t always the solution.
“Wheat requires a lot of energy to process,” said Mrs Black. “I’ve always suffered from asthma and hay fever. Since I’ve cut wheat and dairy out, I’ve been a completely different person. My eyes don’t itch, I can walk the dog through fields and I’ve got more energy.
“But going gluten free isn’t a universal miracle cure. There are vitamins you miss out on. You have to be careful to get that balance.
Oast to Host will be appearing at the Allergy and Free From Show in London in July, and the products are available online or from any of the 20 local cafes, delis and farm-shops they supply.
“We don’t want to sell to supermarkets”, said Mrs Forster. “We prefer to supply places where people really value what they’re getting.”
And they’re hoping that a second instalment of government funding, in the shape of Growth Accelerator coaching, will help them reach even more people.
“We want to take this to the next level”, said Mrs Black.
We’d like to start making some money. We haven’t earned anything yet!”
1888 coeliac disease was clinically recognised by Dr Sameul Gee. He described its clinical attributes and suggested the role of diet in the condition. 1924 before gluten had been identified as the culprit, the restriction of carbohydrates and fat was advised for coeliacs. The ‘banana diet’ was popularised by Dr Haas with his famous paper ‘The value of the banana in the treatment of coeliac disease’.
1944 paediatrician Willem-Karel Dick pioneered the gluten-free diet. He was the first person to demonstrate that coeliac children relapsed after eating certain types of flour.
1978 American company Energ-G produced the world’s first gluten-free bread.
2015 At least one in every 100 people is aﬀ ected by coeliac disease. One in ten new food products emerging on the market is gluten free, and the global gluten-free market is estimated to be worth £2.6bn.