Do I prefer to be gluten-free?
A few months ago I met my family to go out to dinner at a larger chain restaurant. It was my birthday so my mom wanted to treat me and it was a place that we typically don’t go to but has a good record as being careful with gluten-free diners.As we munched on the appetizer, the waitress came around and said to me “oh… are you gluten-free because you have to be or is it simply a preference, because that appetizer isn’t gluten-free.” I think the color went out of my face immediately. A few questions come to mind right away such as- why would I simply prefer to be gluten-free? Second, and most importantly, how long would it be until I was feeling the wrath of symptoms from gluten in my very unhappy body? The second question was answered within about 30 minutes as I rushed to the bathroom and deposited my dinner is painful heaves. I remembered then that staring into the toilet bowl is NOT my favorite place to be. I was reminded of that two more times before leaving the restaurant and then for the following three days recuperating and detoxing.
I am not alone in my inability to consume gluten. Today in the United States it is estimated that 1% of our population has Celiac Disease. That statistic however does not account for all those who suffer from gluten intolerance. With the mention of gluten intolerance many folks eyes start to glaze over. They ask things like “well if you don’t have Celiac Disease, then you just prefer to not have gluten, right?” or “if it’s just ‘gluten intolerance’, that means that you can have a little bit of gluten and you’re ok.” I will try not to yell too much while I answer those… NO! I am not a diagnosed Celiac, but even though the medical world has not diagnosed me, I become violently ill when I consume even a grain of gluten like countless other sufferers.
Today at least half of the restaurants that you walk into will show gluten-free options or a completely separate gluten-free menu. There are countless bakeries and delis that now have gluten-free breads and baked goods to meet the needs of the gluten intolerant. The grocery store shelves are now stock with gluten-free items, sometimes running an entire aisle long. Suddenly (over the last ten years or so) there has sprouted a huge market for gluten-free products. Gluten-free has become the largest and fastest growing category of food products in the United States. And while I should rejoice about this because now there are so many options, I don’t.
The advent of so much gluten-free in the market has made it increasingly difficult for folks to take the issue seriously and that is a dangerous thing. There is no doubt that the ever growing market and demand for gluten-free products is present, but with creating a product to meet certain dietary restrictions there is also a responsibility to maintain that product to be sure it is safe for that market to consume. This second part is what people are failing to see. For instance, if you walk into an Italian restaurant that offers gluten-free items, is the gluten-free pasta boiled in the same water as gluten-full pasta? What about a restaurant that has french fries on their gluten-free menu, are those fries fried in the same oil that is used to fry breaded foods? If you go to a local bakery to purchase a few gluten-free treats, is it a gluten-free bakery or do they produce regular wheat products on site as well? If so, how careful are they about cross contamination? It is really nice to be able to stop somewhere and grab a quick treat, but what are the consequences to those who have those dietary restrictions? Unlike many other conditions the damage on the body of someone who is truly gluten intolerant or has Celiac Disease may not be obvious. But each time they consume a gluten containing product they are re-damaging or adding to already present damage in their digestive tract. For me, I can tell without any hesitation that I have been contaminated with gluten, but it is not the case for everyone. Does a business hold the responsibility of causing medical damage to a person? No, they place disclaimers in menus telling diners to be cautious because there is a risk of contamination. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to choose what we consume and what we do not, but there is no doubt that businesses are feeding off the ignorance of those who are trying to heal.
For anyone who has transitioned to being gluten-free, they know how difficult it can be. It is not simply choosing gluten-free bread and using gluten-free flours, you have to check labels and ask questions for all the places that gluten can possibly be present. For our bodies to heal, we have to be consistent and diligent in our food choices. While I can choose what I put in my body and the bodies of my children, I do feel that businesses need to carefully decide if it is safe to market to the diets of those with dietary restrictions.
At Kickshaws Downtown Market, all gluten-free products are produced in dedicated gluten-free facilities.