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Do you need to offer gluten free food?

It’s becoming an increasingly common sight on supermarket shelves and in advertising – food that’s promoted as ‘gluten free’. At first glance this might seem just a fad – the latest diet craze. And it’s true that most of us don’t need to avoid gluten as we can eat it with no ill effects.

But for a growing number of people, gluten is something which must be avoided.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats as well as foods and ingredients containing these (including most breads and pasta, many cereals, pastries and biscuits). Many everyday foods contain it, especially as wheat and its derivatives are often used as an ingredient in processed products.

For people who are medically diagnosed with coeliac disease – a permanent intestinal intolerance to gluten – the only effective is a lifelong gluten free diet. The latest figures show coeliac disease affects 1.5 per cent of Australians – around 350,000 people – with many of these remaining undiagnosed.

For those with this condition, there is no “safe” level of gluten – the food they eat must be 100 per cent gluten free, as even a small amount can cause serious health issues such as inflammation of the bowel which can lead to significant long term damage.

While the number of people being diagnosed with coeliac disease means there is a genuine need for gluten free food in school canteens as well as at home and when eating out, The Coeliac Society’s David Sullivan says many people are also ‘self-diagnosing’ – believing themselves to have a gluten intolerance when in fact there could be other reasons for perceived symptoms such as bloating and stomach discomfort.

“Obviously some people are feeling better when eating a gluten free diet,” David says. “They may have undiagnosed coeliac disease but haven’t gone down the path of seeing their doctor. The problem also is that a bad reaction to gluten may be masking other, more serious health conditions, so they should ensure they’re acting under the guidance of a medical practitioner. It certainly is a big concern for us that people self-diagnose, and social media and the internet is playing a big part here.

“Also, from our point of view it’s not desirable to commence a gluten free diet if you don’t have a medical reason for doing so, as it can be less nutritious for people if for example they’re cutting out wheat-based foods which are good sources of fibre. People may think they’re feeling better by eliminating gluten, but in fact it may be something else. For example, we know that the carbohydrates in certain foods can create bowel issues for some people and it’s easy for them to misdiagnose this as a gluten intolerance. So people really do need to see their doctor and have the proper tests done.”

Clearly it makes little sense to avoid gluten unless you have a dietary need to do so. But if your school has students with coeliac disease, that will necessarily restrict what they can order from the canteen.

If you want to be able to cater for these kids, you’ll not only have to source gluten free breads, pasta, biscuits and so on, you’ll also need to pay closer attention to the ingredients labels on sauces, mayonnaises, spreads and toppings.

In order to prepare gluten free meals, you’ll have to ensure your food preparation surfaces are protected against the risk of cross-contamination. Just a few breadcrumbs or a dusting of ordinary wheat flour can contain enough gluten to make someone with coeliac disease sick if it gets on their food while you’re preparing it.

Coeliac Australia, the national organisation supporting people with coeliac disease, suggests that school canteens should have separate sections of the kitchen set aside for the safe preparation of meals for children with coeliac disease.

Colour coding your food equipment, and ensuring separate sets of knives, spoons, spatulas and other everyday utensils for gluten free food preparation, offers further protection against cross-contamination.

If you do have students with coeliac disease at your school, their parents will most likely take an active involvement in what they’re buying from the canteen, as they’ll want to make sure that their needs are being safely managed.

The most important thing is to have suitable procedures in place, for example ensuring that gluten free meals are produced first – before the everyday meals.

In some cases it’s easier to change recipes and make as many meals as possible on the menu gluten free. Many food suppliers are now modifying their product formulations to make food gluten free without compromising either quality or presentation, so it pays to consider using these guaranteed gluten free products. You can find a selection in Term 1 2016 Canteen Magazine’s Product section on p14.

Coeliac Australia offers training services to schools and canteens, and there are also resources available through its state offices for education purposes. For information visit