WHETHER its cakes, sandwiches or even fish and chips, the catering industry has seen a boom in the gluten-free food market in restaurants, bakeries and wholesalers in recent years including in Gwent.

Providing for people with coeliac disease - an intolerance to gluten - more and more people are now developing their business and products to ensure they meet the needs of this food group as much as everyone else.

One of these is ex-Pontypool teacher Rhys Thomas who turned to baking on on a personal quest to create more products for people with food allergies.

Mr Thomas, 35, said: “The idea of starting my own bakery came about when my dad was diagnosed with coeliac disease and we soon realised that there wasn’t much in the way of sweet food.”

“So I thought I could bridge a gap in the market and decided to take the plunge and become my own boss.”

Based in a unit in New Inn he worked with The Food Centre Wales in West Wales to produce gluten and lactose free products.

Starting with a Welsh Cake, that took 29 recipes to get to the final product, Mr Thomas has now created nine products that include carrot and walnut cake, coffee cake, Victoria sponge, sticky toffee and date pudding, chocolate muffin, and banana and walnut loaf cake.

Bakestone Bakery now supplies customers and businesses such as cafés and delicatessens from Chepstow to Cardiff and has a small shop for the public at the Polo Grounds Industrial Estate.

Mr Thomas said the demand for gluten-free products is growing.

He said: “The new up and coming chefs and pub owners are keen to include gluten-free products on their menus.”

And without giving away his kitchen secrets he said: “The key to making gluten-free products premium products is to throw the recipe rule book out and use a different process.”

Mr Thomas said his products are also popular with people who choose to have gluten free cakes.

The business is proving a success with Mr Thomas preparing to launch a new website and celebration cake next-day delivery service nationwide.

The business has been shortlisted for its gluten-free Welsh cakes and vegan choc chip muffin in this year’s FreeFrom Awards which celebrate the innovation and imagination shown by the food industry in creating foods that are free of wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soya, sulphites and other allergens.

The rise in gluten free is not only among small businesses, with Pontypool bakers Ultrapharm now bringing their gluten free bread to large retailers across the UK.

The bakers have nearly 200 different gluten free products on sale at any time including crumpets, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties and battenburg cakes.

After moving to the area in 2007, the firm’s factory in Mamhilad Technology Park now supplies to nearly 500 Marks and Spencer stores around the UK.

Polly’s Buffet in Cwmbran also offers a wide range of gluten-free food from sandwiches to sweets.

Co-owner Cheryl Clements, 42, said: “People are becoming aware of gluten intolerance and coeliac disease and there is a demand for the food.”

Ms Clements explained the special diet food is kept separate to other items when serving a buffet and is always labelled to alert attention.

“I have not had a totally gluten free buffet yet, it’s usually just one or two people,” she added. “I think the gluten free brownies and meringues are probably the favourite on the sweet side of things.”

From December last year food businesses, including takeaways, must be able to inform customers of any food allergens in their dishes.

According to Coeliac UK a trip to the local chippie for an indulgent takeaway is not as simple as it seems. Many fish and chip shops cook chips in the same oil as battered fish. And the only way to enjoy a gluten free fish and chips meal is by using a dedicated gluten free fryer.

But fish and chip shops across South Wales are doing just that to be able to provide a gluten-free alternative to the British favourite takeaway meal.

Fairwater Fish and Chip Bar in Cwmbran has won national awards for its gluten-free food, including the Coeliac UK ‘Outstanding Achievement’ award.

Rob Strinati, who has owned Fairwater Fish and Chip Bar in Cwmbran for 20 years, has been frying up a treat for allergy sufferers by serving gluten-free fish and chips since 2007.

Mr Strinati serves a range of foods six days a week using a separate fryer to ensure no cross contamination occurs.

Among the gluten-free items on the menu is a choice of pineapple, sausage and apple fritters as well as chicken and cheese.

Mr Strinati said: “I started offering gluten-free after seeing a young child unable to eat with the rest of his family.”

“When I asked why and it was explained, I used a separate fryer for him and afterwards decided to continue to keep a special fryer for all gluten-free items.

“The demand is high. We cook to order and customers ring in and then we have it ready for them to collect.”

“We do get customers who prefer the gluten-free flavour.”

l Coeliac disease is an intolerance to gluten which causes an inflammation in the intestines. Left untreated, the disease can lead to more serious conditions, such as osteoporosis, infertility or bowel cancer and the only treatment is sticking to a strict life-long gluten-free diet.

Coeliacs UK estimate the gluten free market could be worth around £100 million to the catering and restaurant industry each year.