Friday, March 22, 2013


Look, a sensational title to draw you in. Ha! Gotcha!

So it took me a second to cool off from my knee-jerk reaction to Elissa Strauss's piece on Jezebel this morning. "Will Everyone Please Eat Gluten? Please? Because You Are Literally Killing Me, Kind Of" highlights a legitimate issue, but goes for it by poking a bear with a short stick.

If one more person writes one more article about how hard it is to have celiac disease without acknowledging the rare privilege it is to have the time, money, health insurance, and the unicorn of a medical doctor who gives a shit enough to figure out what is wrong with your shit, I am going to scream. 

Yes, there are people who are attempting to avoid gluten as a fad diet, but don't chastise people who are trying to improve their health by working towards figuring out if gluten is the culprit; there is a good chance they are doing it on their own and dealing with a lot of physical and emotional pain. Before you start clacking away on your keyboard take a moment and realize just how lucky you are. And if you want to keep on typing, do us all a favor and stop embarrassing yourself by acting like getting a diagnosis is something that everyone can do. 

So back to the legitimate issue the article does bring up...
People who don't "need" to avoid gluten are going gluten-free but aren't as adherent and causing confusion and dining out problems for those who must not eat gluten.

So this is something I personally care about, because I would like to be able to go out to a restaurant say "it needs to be gluten-free" and not get poisoned. But I also know it is a lot more complicated. In 2010 I gave a conference paper about this very issue. I am going to dork-out for a second, but hold on, I will get all rant-y again soon. 

My paper, "I Cannot Have It But I Want It: Food Analogs Mitigating Dietary Change" looked at just how people with dietary restrictions (medical, personal, religious, ethic, etc) use language and substitute foods. What was really fascinating was how and when people chose to use the word "allergic". In the US, the word "allergy" comes with very specific visuals - people going into aliphatic shock, people needing an EpiPen, a legitimate threat to life - allergy in the restaurant world also can be code for "potential law suit". The word allergy can be used to traverse language barriers when working with kitchen and wait staff - it is an instant conversation stopper. (Especially in Massachusetts were we have laws that require allergy awareness training for restaurant kitchen staff.)

And this is a good thing. It is good to have language - and one special word - that can explain a whole lot of words, quickly. It saves us time, aggravation, confusion; language is awesome!

So what happens when people use the word "allergy" but aren't allergic?

If I say I am allergic to avocados. I go out to eat and there are free chips and guacamole and only have a little bit of it, what does that do

1. Allergies are tricky - some people have a threshold, aka they can be exposed to a small amount of something and not have a big reaction. So I could eat maybe a tablespoon of avocado before I start getting itchy. This does not mean I am not allergic, it just means I have a higher threshold than someone who's throat would close up if they had a very small amount. 

2. Ok, allergies are not universally similar, but we are all using this same word. So what happens then socially when I don't want slices of avocado in my tacos, but I do want to have a little guacamole?
Here is the trouble. People who are very reactive, or have little to no threshold for avocados, may get really angry when I order food and use the term "allergic" because if a waiter hears me say allergic, but sees me then eat the food I said I can't eat - invoking images of ambulances and lawsuits - perhaps she is going to take the next person a lot less seriously. 

3. What happens when people need to avoid a food, but don't have a word like allergic? Ding, ding, ding - celiac disease! I am technically not allergic to gluten - I do not have a histamine reaction - I have an autoimmune response. They are different, but in the interest of not getting violently ill, not wanting to spend 10 minutes educating waitstaff making $2.63 an hour, I use a shortcut: gluten allergy. People do this all the time. Linguistic shortcuts are awesome! Getting your point across quickly and clearly is wonderful and really important. 

Back to the article...
Strauss highlights a current problem in the U.S. with gluten-free being a food trend. Popularizing gluten-free replacement foods (breads, pizza, cookies, etc.) is a double-edge sword. It is awesome to have more options. Truly it is way better than 5 years ago. But as she points out, with the increase in options, there is a quagmire of problems. Crumbs are a huge problem. Here is the thing - crumbs are only a huge problem for people who are allergic or who have celiac disease - they are not a huge problem for people who are trying to avoid gluten for other reasons. But we are all still using the same language. We are all still trying to quickly convey "hey I don't want/can't have gluten in my food, so don't put it there, ok, no really, no gluten" in a fast, efficient manor. So whether saying avocado allergy, or gluten allergy, people are using the word allergy as a short-hand for don't put _____ in my food. 

But what about those pesky crumbs?
If you are on the Gwenth fad-diet of avoid gluten, crumbs are not going to hurt you - and you likely will never know that your food was not prepared to your specifications. If you have an allergy, or celiac disease you will know. 
Gwenth orders gluten free, the cooks and staff can get it right or get it wrong and if you don't have a reaction - no one is going to know. 
Here is the problem. The next person who requests a gluten-free meal, and the cooks and staff do exactly what they did for Gwenth, but the customer is actually allergic and those few crumbs can be a big problem. 

I get it, I get frustrated too. I cannot stand when the gluten-free bakery option is on the bottom shelf, with crumbs falling on it from the gluten-filled options above it. As gluten-free has become trendy, it is harder to be able to clearly relay no, seriously do not feed be even a small amount of gluten, to servers. I feel Strauss's pain because I live with it. 

*For the record, I am not allergic to avocados. That would be a bummer because they are delicious. 

1 comment:

  1. thank you! I wanted to SCREAM when I read her blog post.