The need for gluten-free

More than 1.3 million Britons are now on a gluten‑free diet, yet parents continue to report problems with getting trusted gluten-free food for their children when at school, writes Lisa Bainbridge, head of campaigns at Coeliac UK

Coeliac UK’s 2017 Awareness Week 8-14 May will start with the launch of the Gluten-freevolution and they’re eager for schools to join.

The Gluten-freevolution is aimed at making sure everyone on a gluten-free diet can find something safe and suitable to eat, with a specific focus on public service catering in schools and academies.

Coeliac UK wants to help remove some of the frustration felt by parents when trying to ensure their child’s food is safe for them to eat, with plans to educate and motivate catering teams on why people need gluten-free food, free of cross contamination, and how caterers can provide dishes that are both safe and trusted.

The need for gluten-free

The gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment for coeliac disease, a lifelong autoimmune condition linked to an intolerance to gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. Some children and adults are also sensitive to oats.

While coeliac disease is not an allergy, cereals containing gluten is one of the 14 main allergens that are subject to food information regulations across the EU due to its adverse effects on the health of people with coeliac disease.

In the UK the number of people on a gluten‑free diet is on the rise, with the diagnosis of coeliac disease increasing fourfold over the last two decades. And others are opting for the gluten-free diet to help with the symptoms of conditions of irritable bowel syndrome or because they have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

What is the scale of the issue?

It has been estimated that there are now more than 1.3 million Britons on a gluten-free diet, yet parents continue to report problems getting trusted gluten-free food for their children when at school. Some parents have even opted out of universal or free school meals due to the lack of gluten-free options.

To help get a sense of scale of the issue, Coeliac UK surveyed over 900 parents of children with coeliac disease last year, gathering views on accessing gluten-free food when eating outside of the home.

While over 85 per cent of parents said that the experience of eating out has improved considerably over the last three years, 73 per cent continued to find the overall experience frustrating. On accessing gluten‑free food at school, around half of parents told Coeliac UK that they find it difficult to find a suitable meal for their child.

What are the effects of gluten?

For people with coeliac disease, accidentally eating gluten is described as being “glutened.” If this happens, children are likely to experience symptoms like stomach pain, cramps, bloating and vomiting and diarrhoea over a number of hours or days. It does not cause a life threatening reaction or anaphylactic shock.

Managing the food safety risks for gluten-free can be controlled with minimal costs, once you know how. As part of the Gluten-freevolution, Coeliac UK has developed a range of help and advice get your schools catering team ready to go gluten-free.

What can schools do?

No one wants to see children excluded from school activities, excursions or meals simply because they’re on a gluten-free diet. So making sure catering teams know how to produce safe gluten-free food is essential for any school providing meals.

The rules around the provision of school meals, including catering for medical conditions or specific dietary needs, varies depending on where you live in the UK. For example, schools in England must have a policy on how they support children with medical conditions and an individual healthcare plan for any child with coeliac disease, which should highlight the need for gluten-free food to be provided. While in other parts of the UK, schools have more general duties to ensure children are provided with a suitable meal.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure there is a gluten-free menu option at school meal times. School caterers may be cautious about providing gluten-free dishes due to the potential food safety risks or perceived pitfalls, but it is not difficult or complicated, and there’s lots of free help and guidance available to help.

One of the best sources of information available to schools are parents and carers. School staff and catering teams should work closely with parents of children on a gluten‑free diet to make sure their children are included at meal times and the food they are served is safe and free of cross contamination.

Coeliac UK has produced guides for parents and schools, for every part of the UK, on the rules and expectations on schools to help ensure no child is excluded due to coeliac disease or the need for a gluten-free diet. For further details please see

What does gluten-free mean?

Only foods and meals that contain 20 parts per million (ppm) or less can be labelled or served as “gluten-free”.

Caterers must also provide allergen information for all dishes or menu options on service. This means if a recipe uses any cereals containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley and oats), or any other of the 13 other major allergens, then this information must be provided to anyone who asks for it.

It is important that all staff, both kitchen and service staff, can talk to pupils about your gluten-free options and the kitchen controls in place to prevent cross contamination with gluten. Good communication is key.

If schools outsource catering services, it is important to include the need for safe gluten-free food as part of any procurement process or contract.

How can Coeliac UK help?

Coeliac UK is the charity for everyone living without gluten. We carry out research and campaign for better diagnosis and a fairer deal for people on a gluten-free diet. We provide independent, trustworthy advice and support. And we do it all so that one day no one’s life will be limited by gluten.

To help schools meet the needs of pupils on a gluten-free diet, Coeliac UK has produced new guidance entitled ‘Catering gluten-free: how to get it right.’ This new free guidance for catering teams has been produced in collaboration with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and it has all the information schools need to start producing food that is labelled gluten-free.

And leading the Gluten-freevolution charge will be Cyril the coeliac duck, who, along with his fellow quacktivists will be helping to spread the word.

Coeliac UK will be releasing four films featuring Cyril during Awareness Week, showing people how coeliac disease affects him and demonstrating how caterers can achieve safe and trusted gluten-free food.

How can schools get involved?

Coeliac UK is on a mission to make sure all public service caterers are ready to produce safe and nutritious gluten‑free food. Whether catering for children in primary or secondary education, catering teams should be able to provide food that ensures the safety and wellbeing of everyone.

Join the Gluten-freevolution by downloading the new gluten-free guidance for caterers, getting to know the gluten-free basics with Cyril, enquire about Coeliac UK GF Accreditation or training. L

Further Information: