A while back, when I was a Sociology PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, IANS published a blog post I wrote, where I reflect on the potential consequence of gluten-free diet shaming for celiacs. The post touched on cross-contamination and explored how disease disclosure comes into play for celiacs when the gluten-free diet is not taken seriously. I’m sharing it here, also.
The dramas of the gluten-free diet
Few years ago in a restaurant, after inquiring if there were any ‘gluten-free’ items available on the menu, a server asked, “Is it serious, or are you one of those gluten-free girls?” Unpacking the dramas of the gluten-free diet, there is a lot to learn.
“One of those gluten-free girls,” he said. Everything about this statement is awful. Ordinarily, sexist condescension like this makes my head spin. On this occasion, however, I confess it brought me relief. Well, not the question itself, of course, but what it implied: the restaurant seemed to understand the difference between food preference, and food-related sensitivity, allergy and/or disease—albeit with a side of judgement. This is an important distinction, considering even small trace amounts of gluten—even through cross-contamination—can potentially make some individuals, especially in the latter category, extremely ill. “It is serious,” I replied. “I have coeliac disease.”
Although this incident took place a while back—back in that rebellious stage when I thought I could trust eating at restaurants that market themselves as catering to the gluten-free diet without getting sick—I remember it well. It marked my first experience with what can only be described as the growing drama surrounding the gluten-free diet.
Unpacking the hype: What’s the big deal?
Gluten may be “the dietary boogeyman du jour” but for some celiacs there is another drama, one that comes from revealing they have the disease in the first place (Olsson et al., 2009). Feeling pressure in food-related social environments, celiacs are constantly challenged to either reveal their disease, or risk potential backlash from appearing to have chosen the gluten-free lifestyle—a lifestyle sometimes mocked, with its followers told they’ve fallen victim to a nonsense marketing scam. Generally, I have found this backlash manifests in the form of an eye roll—maybe you’re rolling your eyes right now?
The growing popularity of the gluten-free diet has increased demand for gluten-free food products, as well as increased the dramas of the gluten-free diet. There is a debate amongst celiacs as to whether this demand has helped or hindered coeliac living. I suppose my view falls somewhere in the middle; on one hand it has bolstered public awareness on a rare and incurable disease. On the other, it’s born a storm of misconceptions about what actually constitutes gluten-free food, placing celiacs at risk of ingesting gluten through products advertised as so-called gluten-free.
The importance of clear food labelling
In December, however, the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation came into effect, requiring greater transparency in the labelling of all packaged and non-packaged food products sold in the EU. Though not a gluten-specific regulation, such transparency may bring some individuals adhering to gluten-free diets relief when eating at restaurants, or attending social events where food will be served. Because the regulation does not sufficiently tackle the issue of cross-contamination, however, celiacs may still feel pressure to disclose their disease.
If the gluten-free diet were taken more seriously in the first place, not mocked as a fad but respected as a legitimate health concern—not just for celiacs, but for anyone choosing the diet—not only would the risk of cross-contamination decrease, celiacs would potentially feel less pressure to disclose their disease in the first place.
Marketing fad or not, let’s drop the condescending eye-rolls. Chewing through stigma and unpacking the dramas of the gluten-free diet requires a deeper look. If someone says they can’t eat something, why can’t we just take them at their word? Dietary restrictions should be taken seriously in all cases, with a side of trust, not judgement.
Olsson, C., P. Lyon, A. Hornell, et al. (2009). Food that makes you different: the stigma experienced by adolescents with celiac disease. Qualitative Health Research 19: 976-984.