Spotlight on... Gluten-free

What is a gluten-free diet? Our nutrition expert Jo Lewin explains what it means for your health, what to watch out for and where you can find support.

Gluten free flour with ingredients on table

What is gluten?

Gluten is the protein component found in wheat, rye and barley. People often think oats contain gluten but they actually contain avenin, which is a protein similar to gluten. Research has shown many people who avoid gluten can safely eat avenin, however, problems can arise if oats are handled in the same place as wheat, barley or rye, as the oats can become contaminated by these other grains.

Gluten gives elasticity, strength and the ability to 'hold' food products together. The most obvious sources of gluten in most diets are bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, flour, pastry, pizza bases, cakes and biscuits. Gluten can also be found in processed foods, such as soups, sauces, ready meals and sausages.

Modern diets have become increasingly high in refined wheat products, which has led to the consumption of significant amounts of gluten. It is thought that some individuals are more sensitive to gluten than others. For the gluten sensitive individual, over consumption may lead to digestive symptoms such as bloating, pain and stomach cramps. For this reason, growing numbers of people choose to follow a gluten-free diet. Gluten intolerance is different from a condition called coeliac disease - this is an auto-immune disease caused by a reaction to gluten, which must be avoided for life.

Loaf of bread being sliced

A note about coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a lifelong, autoimmune disease caused by the body reacting to gluten and is estimated to affect approximately 1 in 100 people. In people with coeliac disease, consuming gluten causes an immune reaction to the lining of the small intestine resulting in a range of symptoms including bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, headaches, sudden or unexpected weight loss (but not in all cases), hair loss and anaemia.

The myriad of symptoms and varying degrees of severity associated with coeliac disease make it hard to diagnose. Once diagnosed, it is treated by following a gluten-free diet for life. If you suspect you have coeliac disease, you are advised to go to your GP for further information before you make any changes to your diet.

Gluten-free diets

A strict gluten-free diet involves the avoidance of any product made from wheat, barley or rye - check labels carefully. 

Avoiding gluten can be hard as wheat is so widely used in commercially manufactured, ready-made foods. But eating gluten-free doesn't have to mean brick-like-bread, dry flaky pastries or gritty gluten-free crackers, nor does it mean sacrificing good nutrition and tasty food. Fortunately there are now a wide range of gluten-free products and resources available. Becoming informed and able to read labels and ingredient lists to recognise gluten in its many guises will certainly be an advantage. The Coeliac UK website has a trusted food and drink directory for members along with other useful advice on living gluten-free. They also have a mobile app complete with barcode scanner, label guide and eating out tips.


Health implications

Bundle of asparagus
If you are following a gluten-free diet, try to ensure it is nutrient dense and full of whole foods. Although there are a wide range of gluten-free products now available, they may not be as high in fibre, iron, folic acid and B vitamins as gluten containing counterparts. If you have any queries concerning your nutritional intake you should speak to your GP.

To ensure you are getting enough fibre and B-vitamins, eat a wide variety of gluten-free grains, fruit and vegetables. Alternative grains such as corn (maize, polenta), soya, potato, quinoa, cornflour, millet, arrowroot, buckwheat, amaranth and rice flours can increase the nutrient profile of the gluten-free diet. Opt for whole grain gluten-free flour mixes which contain more fibre than the highly refined tapioca, white rice and corn starch flours.

The best sources of iron are from meat such as beef, poultry and fish or plant based sources such as beans, legumes and leafy green vegetables, which are all naturally gluten-free. To enhance the absorption of iron, consume iron rich foods with sources of vitamin C.

Folic acid has particular importance for pregnant women and women in their child-bearing years. Some of the best sources are yeast, green leafy vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, beans and lentils.

Things to watch out for

'Hidden' gluten may be in processed meats, dry roasted nuts, marinades, soy sauce, condiments, malt, spice mixes and more. It is advisable to read the labels on everything you plan to eat and create a 'safe' foods list

Oats: Some people with coeliac disease can eat oats but they are often produced in the same place as wheat, barley and rye and may be at risk of cross contamination. If you do eat oats, choose those labelled ‘gluten-free’.

Labelling: 'Gluten Free' food labels = There is now a law covering the use of ‘gluten-free’. When you see this label it must contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Cost: Gluten-free diets can be quite expensive. In some parts of the UK, people with coeliac disease are eligible for foods on prescription – check with your GP.


Shortbread on plate
Gluten-free flours are not as easy to bake with as they lack the elastic properties of gluten. As a result breads may rise (due to yeast or raising agents) but fall again to leave rather dense loaves. Xanthan gum is a natural powder, which if added in small quantities to flour for bread and pastry making, makes a reasonable substitute for the elastic characteristics of gluten.

Combination flours work best for cakes, biscuits and pastry: 60% stronger flours (such as gram or maize) to 40% finer, lighter flours (such as white rice, potato or tapioca). Corn bread made from ground corn or maize meal (NOT cornflour) is a delicious gluten-free bread substitute.


Helpful resources

Ratatouille in dish with spoon
Coeliac UK is a trusted source for gluten-free advice and has a comprehensive food and drink directory for members.

Be inspired and try more of our favourite gluten-free recipes.

This article was last reviewed on 27th September 2018 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.


Comments, questions and tips

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29th Jun, 2016
Hi there, I am able to use this image above for a year 13 internal which is a magazine article that my teacher only has permission to see! Thanks Casey-lee
TheEightHours's picture
8th Oct, 2015
Did you know October is National Celiac Awareness Month? We rounded up our favourite GF recipes:
23rd Sep, 2015
unfortunately many people say they are gluten intolerant or lactose intolerant but have never visited a doctor for testing. people who think they are affected should visit a health professional to be sure because the symptoms could be covering something different entirely A work mate visited a "high street" doctor who confirmed she was alergic and offered to sell her the appropriate "free" items. Luckily she visited her GP who arrange for clinical tests which found she was not allergic, her symptons were down to something different entirely, So take care and be well.
14th Oct, 2015
Absolutely right. It is also a fallacy to think that gluten-free food is "healthy" - in order to compensate for lack of flavour caused by the absence of wheat, GF products are often higher in fat and sugar and their equivalent, regular products. For this reason, too, you should only go on a GF diet if a doctor recommends you to do so.
2nd Aug, 2015
I found a new website in France which sells gluten free products cheap ... I asked if they sent in England and they answered me that it is possible only to order by phone. I placed my first order and I looks forward to my parcel. That sounds good !
14th Oct, 2015
I wouldn't call cheap! For example, gluten-free flour in British supermarkets is about half the price as the stuff they're selling on the website. Hope you thought the quality was good - do re-post and let us know.
TheEightHours's picture
27th May, 2015
For healthy, tasty and more importantly gluten free recipes try: Taking all the favourites and old classics and adapting them to a gf friendly version. Why should we all miss out.
jessybrain's picture
19th Jun, 2014
Getting the gluten-free diet right is easy when you know the ground rules. Foods made from grains (and grain-like plants) that do notcontain harmful gluten, milk, butter, margarine, real cheese, plain yogurt and vegetable oils including canola. Plain fruits, vegetables, (fresh, frozen and canned), meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, beans and legumes and flours made from them.
15th May, 2014 - your information about oats is also incorrect.
15th May, 2014
You've stated "Gluten is the protein component found in wheat, rye, oats and barley." This is simply incorrect: "Oats are not related to gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley and rye. They don’t contain gluten, but rather proteins called avenins that are non-toxic and tolerated by most celiacs" - please check your sources, BBC


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Jitka Robinson
11th Aug, 2014
According to Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine, Gluten intolerance, is linked to weak digestion. Digestion fire is known as Agni. Agni governs your metabolism, energy, vitality and well being. It is essential to understand that your ability to digest properly is a major key to your good health. Your health at every level actually depends on a balanced Agni. Fortunately, you can use Ayurveda to lessen the intensity of intolerances or allergies simply by balancing your Agni. How do you balance your Agni? Make the right diet and lifestyle choices for yourself! According to Ayurveda, there is not just one universal diet or nutritional program that works for everyone. All of us have a unique body type "constitution" and unique digestive fire Agni. Ayurveda helps you to determine your personal constitution and Agni type. Ayurveda also identifies whether your digestive fire is too strong, too weak or irregular. Once you know your digestion power, you can adjust your dietary choices, with an understanding of what supports you in achieving a balanced Agni. Some basic guidelines are listed below. To create a specific diet and lifestyle plan best for you, please see an Ayurvedic expert. As Deepak Chopra likes to explain, from the five elements (Air, Ether, Fire, Water and Earth) the three doshas are derived (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha). Known as mind-body types, the doshas express particular patterns of unique blends of physical, emotional, and mental characteristics. There are four types of Agni, each correlating to a dosha. The dosha that is out of balance tends to reveal one's current Agni type. Vishama Agni, or irregular fire, is related to the Vata dosha. If you have Vishama Agni, your appetite may vary, and digestion may be inconsistent. You may experience indigestion, gas, bloating and/or constipation. You should favor warm, cooked, heavier, slightly oily foods with the sweet, sour and salty tastes. Ideal spices include: fennel, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, salt, cloves, mustard seed and black pepper. Tikshna Agni, or sharp fire, is related to the Pitta dosha. If you have Tikshna Agni, your digestive fire burns strongly and can easily overheat, particularly in hot weather. You may experience diarrhea, skin rashes, hyperacidity, anger, frustration and inflammation. To keep your Agni balanced, opt for sweet, bitter and astringent foods and minimize hot foods both in taste and temperature. Chew on fennel seeds after meals to cool down acid in the stomach. Ideal spices include: coriander, cilantro, cardamom, saffron, and fennel. Ginger, cumin, black pepper, fenugreek, clove, salt, and mustard seed should be used very sparingly. Chili peppers, and cayenne are best avoided. Manda Agni, a slow, dull fire, is related to the Kapha dosha. Manda Agni tends to be heavy, cool and slow. Those with Manda Agni tend to gain weight easily and may not need or may not be hungry for a breakfast. Light fasting once a week with only lassi, fruit juice or a thin soup could be a good idea for you. Heavy creamy smoothies are not suitable. Drinking warm ginger tea with meals helps stimulate your digestion. You should favor a lighter diet with legumes, cooked vegetables and whole grains. Optimal spices for Manda Agni include: pepper, cayenne, mustard seed, and ginger. Minimize salt intake. Sama Agni, or balanced fire, is the desired state of our digestive fire. Those with Sama Agni posses great equilibrium, well functioning metabolism, strong immunity and longevity. Jitka Robinson, ALC Your guide to balance, health and happiness
13th Aug, 2013
As a sufferer of coeliac disease, I have found that sticking to the same brand of gluten-free flour makes things a lot easier. This is because each brand of GF flour uses a different mix so they will absorb liquids differently. If you follow the same recipe with different brands of flour your results will be quite different, if not disastrous. I've been using Doves GF flour for the last five years or so and find that for cakes and biscuits I can often do a straight one-to-one substitution for wheat flour - sometimes cakes need an extra egg. If I need to make a slight change to a recipe I write it down in the cookery book because I know that when I get back to the recipe a few weeks later I'll have forgotten what I changed. I also use Doves GF bread mix (both brown and white) and have found that if I use half bread mix and half GF plain flour the result is better. GF bread can be delicious but it has to be eaten totally fresh; it will not keep at all as it dries out so quickly. I make a lot of buns and freeze them; then I can thaw them individually as required. If I make a loaf I slice it and freeze the slices - I tend to use these for toast.