Gluten-free choices are getting better - but there's still a way to go, says Phil Vickery. Ahead of Coeliac Awareness Week (May 9-15), the TV chef tells Kate Whiting why he's on a mission to make free-from cooking mainstream

COELIAC disease is not new - the word itself is a translation of the Greek 'koiliakos' meaning 'abdominal', and linked to ancient Greek physician, Aretaeus of Cappadocia. But it's only in the last decade that modern-day supermarkets have caught up and started catering to those with the autoimmune illness, which affects around 1% of the UK population.

A disease - rather than an allergy or intolerance - when people with coeliac eat gluten, their immune system mistakes it as a threat and attacks healthy tissues. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, anaemia and sudden or unexpected weight loss - which can be very similar to symptoms caused by an intolerance. However, with coeliac, cutting out gluten completely is absolutely essential for avoiding, possibly serious, long-term damage and complications.

Coeliac UK notes that up to half a million people are believed to be living with coeliac disease undiagnosed, and it can take up to 13 years for a diagnosis.

It's no wonder the free-from sections are starting to take up more of the supermarket aisles, and brands like PizzaExpress, Young's Fish Fingers and Nestle Cereals are all introducing gluten-free alternatives into their product ranges. Mintel research reckons the free-from market is worth around £365 million, and predicts it will grow another 50% by 2019.

One man who has watched the free-from rise with interest is Coeliac UK ambassador and TV chef Phil Vickery.

He published his first gluten-free cookbook, Seriously Good! Gluten-free Cooking in 2009 - which has sold more than 250,000 copies to date, with a revised edition out this year - and his latest, Phil Vickery's Essential Gluten-free, is due for publication on May 12, during Coeliac Awareness Week.

But when he first suggested a gluten-free title, his publisher, Kyle Books, were not 100% convinced. "I said, 'It might not be right now, but I think it's going to be a big thing'. Anyway, [they] called me back on the Monday and said, 'Oh go on then, we'll give it a punt!'"

The This Morning regular and his family - wife Fern Britton and four children (the couple have one daughter together, and three are from Britton's first marriage) - don't have any need to stick to a gluten-free diet at home. Instead, Vickery discovered the importance of cooking for people with coeliac and gluten intolerance quite by chance, 15 years ago, when after a shortage of flour for his Christmas puddings to sell at food fayres, he switched to rice flour, got the Coeliac UK stamp of approval, and they started selling like proverbial hot cakes to his delighted customers.

He's pleased by the increased availability of gluten-free alternatives now ("When I first started, you couldn't buy tapioca flour anywhere") but still doesn't think the need for gluten-free cooking has been embraced universally yet: "Chefs pay lip service to it; I'm astounded at those who just think it's a fad."

As an ambassador for Coeliac UK, he knows there's "a very clear distinction between having a disease and choosing [to eat gluten-free] as a lifestyle choice".

"Those waters get muddied in my eyes - coeliac sufferers get very annoyed, it's upset a lot of them."

Vickery, who turns 55 in May, is on a bit of a mission to make gluten-free cooking more widespread. He's just signed up with Saga Cruises to teach gluten-free cooking on board, and has started work on another "allergy science-based" book, which comes out in September.

It's not all work and no play though. He and Britton "make very careful time for each other", and "try to have date nights", plus Vickery's taking the whole of August off.

"We're both freelance, so there are periods when we're both around. Next week, I'm researching, so we'll go for lunch, I'll make dinner. When she goes away cycling, or I'm going to India or something, one of us is always here."

You won't catch Vickery donning Lycra to join Fern in the saddle, though.

"Oh my gosh! Can you imagine it?" he says with a chuckle. "The last thing I want to do is buy Lycra. When I can't play football any more, I will perhaps do a bit of cycling - but I'll be a secret cyclist and I will not, I will NOT, wear Lycra."

Give some of Vickery's gluten-free dishes a go for yourself...