May 11-17 is Coeliac Awareness Week and the charity Coeliac UK is challenging the hospitality industry to cater more for those on a gluten-free diet. Chronicle reporter JO HENWOOD talks about her diagnosis as a coeliac, living on a gluten-free diet and the challenges of eating out

BEING told that you are one in a million by a lover is enough to make your heart miss a beat. Being told that you are one in a hundred by a consultant gastroenterologist makes your heart sink.

This was how I felt in 2005 when I was told I had coeliac disease and that I would have to spend the rest of my life eating a gluten-free diet.

I wasn’t even very ill when doctors diagnosed the condition. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, nausea, constipation or diarrhoea, tiredness, headaches and anaemia and many people spend years with debilitating symptoms before correct diagnosis.

I have had low iron levels since I was a teenager and had been told by many a GP to just keep taking the tablets. When I asked a particularly astute doctor at my practice what could be the cause, she suggested an absorption problem and proposed a test for coeliac disease.

A positive test result was followed by a gastroscopy (endoscopy) and the disease was confirmed.

The only treatment for coeliac disease is to eat a gluten-free diet for life and ever since then I have been tucking into the delights of gluten-free bread, pasta, biscuits and crackers and experimenting with how to create light and fluffy sponges and edible pastry with gluten-free flour.

Gluten is not found only in obvious foodstuffs. It is used as a thickener in yoghurts, pre-prepared sauces and seasonings for meats. Food labelling doesn’t always state the gluten content and there is always a risk of cross-contamination.

For example, I can eat Nestlé Milky Bar buttons but not Nestlé Milky Bar because they are made in different places. I can eat Tesco own brand cornflakes but Kellogg’s cornflakes are definitely off the menu.

Eating at home is perfectly manageable. As a family, we eat a lot of fresh produce and I can obviously eat rice and potatoes. Eating out, however, is more of a challenge. Seemingly gluten-free items on a menu turn out not to be. Many restaurants coat their chips with flour to create a crispy finish and sauces can have hidden flavourings or seasonings even if they have been thickened with cornflour. Increasingly, restaurants buy in a lot of their meals and the chef is unable to confirm the presence of gluten or not. Some cafés and restaurants are very helpful but things can go wrong.

Recently I explained my condition to a very understanding waitress who assured me that the chef understood coeliac disease. Ten minutes later I was served a duck salad with croutons!

Eating out is the thrust of Coeliac UK’s 2009 awareness week.

Free for Tea focuses on the problems faced by coeliacs and throughout May a number of the 150 National Trust tea shops, cafes and restaurants will lead the way by offering gluten-free options on their menus.

The tea shop and restaurant at Erddig, near Wrexham, offers gluten- free soup and potato and lentil pie and the cooks are working on a number of recipes to tempt coeliacs during the week.

Travelling abroad is not easy. The charity Coeliac UK is helpful in providing translations for almost any country in the world and advice on eating gluten-free when in another country. The reality though is a challenge.

On a recent visit to Paris I had practised in my best A level French the difference between farine du blé (wheatflour) and farine du mais (cornflour) only to be met with an unhelpful Parisian shrug and another meal of steak frites just to be safe. Self-catering is best but not always possible on a city break.

Life as a coeliac can be challenging, but following a gluten-free diet is manageable with care. Improvements in food labelling and guidelines for staff working in the hospitality industry can only make life easier for all of us.

Celebrity chef Phil Vickery has launched a new gluten-free cookery book called Seriously Good to coincide with Coeliac Awareness Week. Copies can be purchased from Coeliac UK on or telephone 0870 4448804.