IMAGINE a world where fragrant fresh bread was forbidden, where mouthwatering cakes and biscuits were outlawed and even the nation’s favourite, fish and chips, could only be longingly gazed at through a steamy shop window.

Welcome to the world of the 1 per cent of people in the UK who suffer from coeliac disease, which prevents them from digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other cereals.

Wheat plays such an enormous part in the food industry it is often difficult to avoid, but sufferers of the condition can experience debilitating symptoms, including stomach pain, bloating and diarrhoea as well as mouth ulcers, hair loss and rashes.

Longer term and more severe consequences include weight loss, osteoporosis, depression, infertility and repeated miscarriages. Children often fail to thrive.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, rather than an allergy or simple food intolerance. Better diagnosis of the condition has meant the food industry has had to keep up with a surge in the number of suffers. Most supermarkets are now stocking growing ranges of “free from” products. Other food outlets are catching up.

The Fish Rocks chip shop in London Road, Leigh, introduced a Monday night gluten-free night six weeks ago and has seen it take off beyond expectations.

Owner, Samantha Kaya, said: “We use a special flour for the batter which carries the gluten and wheat free symbol. I actually prefer it, because it seems to be more crispy.

“We have to cook everything, including the chips, in separate oil to prevent contamination.

“Each week, more and more people are coming in. One person was so glad we were doing it because she said she hadn’t had fish and chips for 25 years.

Nicky Bessell’s daughter Molly was diagnosed at the age of four.

Now aged nine, she is thriving, and is one of fish shop’s best customers. Mrs Bessell, 40, of Chalkwell Park Drive, Leigh, said: “Molly was generally unwell and getting continuous coughs and colds.

“Luckily she was diagnosed before too much damage had been done to her bowel.

“The biggest problem is cross-contamination. I can’t use the same knife to butter her bread as ours, and she has to have her own toaster.

“Things are getting better and what Sam has done is great. It is really hard for kids having to avoid everything like party food and fish fingers and pizzas.

“Molly was ecstatic when I told her she could have fish and chips, and we have been going there every week. It’s a real treat for her.”

Katie Monk, 29, a dietician at Southend Hospital said: “If people suspect they or their children may have coeliac disease they should visit their GP.

“There are a number of processes to determine if it is coeliac disease, including blood tests and a biopsy. Some people just have a problem with wheat, but only 2 per cent of cases are true intolerance.

“Avoiding gluten can have dramatic results. It is difficult though, especially for children, but because the symptoms can be so severe, they are reluctant to eat these foods. The number of products available is improving all the time and there are new and better breads.

“Some food is available on prescription, supermarket ranges are getting bigger and chains like Nandos and Weatherspoons are labelling products. So its getting a lot better in terms of quality of life.”

Other chips shops in the area providing gluten-free products are the Fish Bar in High Street Great Wakering, and Chip and Fin in Long Riding, Basildon.