Eating a gluten-free diet has never been more popular, and these days there are gluten-free options and alternatives for pretty much everything. But what exactly is gluten – and why do some people avoid it? And if you follow a gluten-free diet, does that mean your days of enjoying pasta, bread and other gluten-filled favourites are gone? Or are there still plenty of mouthwatering meals to enjoy?
Below we’ll explore what gluten is, why some people avoid it, and offer 10 tasty gluten-free recipes to try.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the name for a group of proteins that are found in wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. When flour is mixed with water, the gluten protein forms a sticky consistency that’s glue-like – and interestingly, the name gluten comes from the Latin word for “glue”. It’s this stickiness that makes the wet dough elastic and allows the bread to rise. It’s also what gives bread that deliciously chewy texture!
There are two types of proteins in gluten – glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin is the protein that’s mainly responsible for gluten’s adverse health effects.
Why do some people avoid gluten?
While most health experts believe that gluten is safe for the majority of people to eat, there are some who believe that we should all avoid eating it. However, the fact remains that most people are able to eat gluten without any side effects – though there are exceptions.
Around 1% of the global population suffer from coeliac disease, which is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where the body mistakes gluten for a foreign invader and attacks the gluten proteins. When it does this, it also attacks the lining of the gut, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, digestive issues and anaemia, as well as an increased risk of suffering from many other diseases.
Up to 13% of the global population are believed to have some form of gluten intolerance. While they’re not coeliacs, they suffer from what’s called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and can experience symptoms including diarrhoea, stomach pain, tiredness, bloating and depression after eating gluten.
However, the stats and research around this are rather controversial. Many experts believe it’s other substances that are responsible for these symptoms, not gluten – and some people mistakenly believe they’re intolerant to gluten when they’re not. One study of 393 people who believed they were gluten intolerant found that only 55 actually had an issue with gluten.
If you believe you have a gluten intolerance, the first thing you should do is speak to your doctor. While most people don’t need to avoid gluten, people suffering from specific health conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome, sometimes find that staying away from gluten can make a huge difference.
There’s no harm in trying a gluten-free diet or simply trying to eat less gluten to see if you notice any difference in your health.
If you’d like to try gluten-free foods – or you already follow a gluten-free diet – here are 10 delicious recipes to inspire you.
1. Gluten-free fresh pasta
If you’re passionate about Italian food and love tucking into a comforting bowl of pasta, the idea of giving it up can be heartbreaking! Luckily, you don’t have to – and while most supermarkets sell decent gluten-free pasta these days, for the best results you might want to try making your own. More good news is that making gluten-free pasta is just as simple as making regular pasta.
Simply use gluten-free flour (rice flour and cornflour both work well), water, a glug of olive oil and some xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is an important ingredient in gluten-free dough recipes, as it’s this that makes the pasta dough elastic rather than dry and crumbly. Most supermarkets sell xanthan gum. To find out how to make gluten-free fresh pasta from scratch, check out this recipe by Pasta Evangelists – or have a watch of the video below.
2. Ratatouille and parmesan bake
We all know that vegetables should form a large part of our diet – but most of us still aren’t eating enough. Vegetables are packed with health-boosting vitamins and fibre, yet in the UK, fewer than one in 10 people eat the recommended daily amount of fibre (30g). Making an effort to eat more veg is one of the best things you can do for your health – and of course, veggies are naturally gluten-free.
This ratatouille and parmesan bake recipe by BBC Good Food contains all of your five-a-day in one go – and it’s also carb-free, so it’s ideal for anyone who’s trying to follow a low-carb diet. Even better, it also contains lots of tomatoes and peppers, which are high in both vitamin C and antioxidants that have powerful anti-inflammatory effects – so this really is a dish that’s as healthy as it is delicious.
3. Tuscan butter salmon
If you didn’t manage to go on holiday this summer and would do anything to be in sunny Tuscany right now, tucking into a big bowl of local cuisine, then we might have the perfect recipe for you.
This Tuscan butter salmon recipe by Delish is wonderfully dreamy, and the tomato, basil and cream sauce that’s stirred through with parmesan tastes incredibly indulgent.
Salmon is also high in health-boosting omega-3 fats, which might help reduce the risk of dementia, as well as slow cognitive decline, improve memory, and lower levels of stress. You might find that once you’ve made this recipe, you go on making it time and again. For more guidance on how to make this dish, have a watch of the video below.
4. Jerk chicken
Caribbean food is known for its deep flavours and warm colours, and if you’d like to inject a bit of spice into your cooking – or just pretend you’ve managed to jet off to an exotic island – you might want to try making some authentic Caribbean recipes. The good news is that because Caribbean food tends to use rice as its main carb, many of its most popular recipes are naturally gluten-free.
This jerk chicken recipe from Delish is packed with gorgeous flavours: cinnamon and allspice add a lovely sweetness, garlic, onions and thyme add delicious fragrant, savoury flavours, and jalapeño gives a spicy kick. It’s best to marinate your chicken for a few hours to allow the flavours to infuse, before serving with rice and beans for maximum authenticity.
5. Gluten-free brownies
If you consider yourself a chocoholic, it’s probably a safe bet to assume you love brownies. Squidgy, rich and fudgy, brownies are a real treat – and avoiding gluten doesn’t mean you have to miss out.
Gluten-free cakes and sweet treats might have once had a reputation for being crumbly and dry, but there’s no reason why you can’t make gluten-free brownies that are just as moist and gooey as they should be.
There are dozens of gluten-free brownie recipes online, but this one from BBC Good Food looks great. Serve with a scoop of ice cream for dessert, or keep in an airtight box for a little afternoon pick-me-up.
Alternatively, you might want to try making no-bake brownies; they don’t contain flour so they’re usually gluten-free by default, and because they don’t contain eggs they’re easy to make vegan too. For more on making gorgeous gluten-free brownies, have a watch of the video below.
6. Bean, lentil and chard pie
As autumn rolls around once again, many of us will be craving heartier, comforting dishes – and pies are some of the most popular comfort foods around.
While many pies are made with pastry – which can be made gluten-free – an option that’s slightly lighter and healthier but no less comforting, is to use mashed potato on the top of the pie instead of pastry. Potatoes are full of fibre and antioxidants and help keep you full for longer.
This bean, lentil and chard pie from the Coeliac website makes a deliciously warming dinner – and because it’s packed with beans and lentils, it’s also a great source of iron and fibre. Carrots, onions, courgettes, tomatoes and chard ensure you’re getting plenty of veggies – and if you’re pushed for time and want to make a quicker version, you can simply use a jar of passata instead of making the tomato sauce from scratch.
7. Prawn and black pepper curry
If you like seafood but want to make something a little bit different, then why not try making a seafood curry? Because curries contain spices like ginger, turmeric, chillies and garlic, they’re a great way to give your immune system a boost – and they’re also often lighter than traditional fish dishes like fish and chips or fish pie. Curries are also good ways to cram in loads of veg, and eating them with rice means they’re naturally gluten-free. To be even healthier, you could even eat them with quinoa.
This Indian-style prawn and black pepper curry by Olive Magazine is fragrant, aromatic and seriously satisfying – and the addition of coconut milk adds good fats and a lovely creamy consistency. Plus, prawns contain calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin E, as well as vitamin B12. If you prefer Thai flavours, you might want to make Jamie Oliver’s Thai red curry with prawns; if so, have a watch of the video below.
8. Breakfast traybake
Breakfast is often the meal that’s hardest to navigate on a gluten-free diet. Quick breakfasts tend to rely on bread, and while oats are gluten-free, many coeliacs avoid eating them because they can become contaminated with other cereals. Other more indulgent breakfasts like pancakes use flour, so thinking of a quick, healthy and tasty idea for a gluten-free breakfast can sometimes seem tricky.
So why not make this breakfast traybake, by Coeliac? Fried eggs served sunny-side up are baked alongside tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms – the latter of which are high in vitamin D as well as several antioxidants that act as anti-inflammatories, so this is a great way to start the day. Smoked paprika adds depth to the flavours, and hot sauce adds a hint of fire. If you like, you could always add veggie or meat sausages to the bake to make it a bit heartier.
9. Gluten-free bread
If you’ve ever eaten gluten-free bread, there’s probably a good chance you were left disappointed. Without gluten, it’s easy for bread to have a strangely dense or crumbly consistency; it can feel as though you’re eating bread that’s very stale! But the quality of gluten-free bread has soared recently, and if you tried making bread for the first time during lockdown, you might want to have a go at making a gluten-free version.
If you follow the right recipe, gluten-free bread can be perfect: soft yet chewy, and with a satisfyingly crisp crust. The Coeliac website has a great selection of gluten-free bread; from banana bread to chapati, and crumpets to pitta bread, there really is a bread for every occasion. However, if you’re looking to make the perfect gluten-free white loaf, you can’t go wrong with this recipe from The Gluten-Free Blogger. For more guidance, have a watch of her video below.
10. Moroccan vegetable soup
Soup makes the perfect healthy lunch – and it’s also ideal as a comforting dinner on a rainy day, especially when paired with some excellent gluten-free bread!
One of the healthiest soups you can make – as well as one of the most hearty and satisfying – is this Moroccan vegetable soup by Olive Magazine. Packed with fibre-rich pulses, nutritious vegetables and warming spices, it really is a nutritional powerhouse in a bowl – plus, it’s less than 250 calories per serving.
Protein-packed chickpeas fill you up, and they’re also high in vitamins and minerals, and can help improve digestion, support weight management, reduce the risk of disease, and maintain bone health. Spinach and tomatoes lend their anti-inflammatory properties, and the chillis, garlic and turmeric also give your immune system a nice boost. Have a watch of the video below for more instructions.
If you thought a gluten-free diet had to be boring or one-dimensional, we hope these diverse recipes have shown you otherwise! Many delicious, healthy foods are naturally gluten-free, and other foods that traditionally contain gluten, like pasta and bread, can easily be adapted.
Whether you’re a coeliac, gluten-sensitive, or you just want to try cutting back on gluten and seeing if you notice a difference in your health, following a gluten-free diet can be really enjoyable as well as healthy. As with all diets, trying to eat mostly fresh, whole foods and few processed foods is always the best bet.
Do you follow a gluten-free diet? Or are you inspired to try any of these recipes? We’d love to hear about your experiences with gluten. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave us a comment below.