The gluten-free diet: why so much drama?

By Mary Hanlon (Staff Writer)

A 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?”

“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.”[1]

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[2] surrounding the gluten-free diet.

Gluten may be “the dietary boogeyman du jour”[3] but for some coeliacs there is another drama, one that comes from revealing they have the disease in the first place[4]. Feeling pressure in food-related social environments, coeliacs 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[5]. 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. There is a debate amongst coeliacs 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 coeliacs at risk of ingesting gluten through products advertised as so-called gluten-free.

In December, however, the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation[6] 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, coeliacs 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 coeliacs, but for anyone choosing the diet—not only would the risk of cross-contamination decrease, coeliacs would potentially feel less pressure to disclose their disease in the first place.

Marketing fad or not, let’s drop the condescending eye-rolls. 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.