Jamie Magazine, Spelt and Gluten Free: a cautionary tale

The team behind Jamie Magazine are not the first people to err on the gluten-containing status of spelt, and neither will they be the last. Issue 27 contains four recipes which make use of the flour of triticum spelta and which are described as gluten free. The apology for the mistake is here.

Reactions to this have been mixed. I tweeted last week in request of thoughts and views while I was trying to formulate my own. Many responders were annoyed.

Maria, while acknowledging she herself was initially confused regarding spelt, said she “would have thought the Oliver empire would know better”.

“What can I say?” said Jane of Food for Celiacs. “This is how all us coeliacs are treated. People think they know what we can eat – but do they?”

Sian, of the excellent Gluten Free Mrs D blog, chose strong words. She called it ‘shocking’ and ‘terrible’, adding: “Why did they not double check? I feel sorry for any coeliacs out there who have a print copy and don’t have access to social media to see the apology. There will be people getting ill from eating spelt, thinking it’s gluten free.”

“Dreadful,” agreed Louise of the Good Food, Great Fun and GF Blog. “I can imagine some kind cooks making the recipes for gluten avoiding pals and not realising.”

All valid points and understandable strong feeling underlying them. Others, though, were more sympathetic. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness acknowledged it would cause confusion, but praised the prompt correction.

Matthew of the Hungry Boyfriend blog agreed magazines had to be more careful. “But mistakes happen and the fact that they are trying to write gluten-free recipes is a positive step,” he added. “Being too harsh will mean they stay clear of allergen recipes.”

“Got to be a good thing that they are trying,” agreed Alexa at the YesNoBananas blog. “An unfortunate error but well-intentioned apology. We should keep them on-side so they try other allergen-free stuff in future.”

Terms and terminology

Alexa touched on an additional issue concerning the widespread confusion and lack of understanding regarding the language of food hypersensitivities: about the difference between coeliac and wheat allergy, for instance, and what grains such as spelt and buckwheat actually are – indeed, one may be a glutenous grain and one not, but name-based intuitive guesswork will lead the uninformed to the wrong answer.

I think the issue of terminology is key, as it often is when it comes this subject. I’ve just written an article for FoodsMatter.com about a proposed standardisation of coeliac and gluten-related terms which, although not earth shattering in itself, did highlight to me the huge problem that even experts have had in setting out precisely what certain words and expressions should mean and whether or not they should be used and, if so, in what context...

In a nutshell, a group of scientists reviewed published papers in the field of gluten-related disorders – medical papers written by experts, remember – and found that many terms were used inconsistently. Perhaps the most notable were ‘gluten sensitivity’ and ‘gluten intolerance’, both often used synonymously with coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten intolerance – two different conditions – on a regular basis.

This has echoes of the more popular confusion regularly played out online and in newspaper and magazine articles regarding the terms food intolerance and food allergy – although I’m not entirely sure we even have an agreed-upon or ‘safe’ definition of what food intolerance is or even whether it should be regarded as one condition.

Although not to excuse anyone who gets things wrong, especially those asking to be trusted or in a position of influence, but given all the above it’s hardly surprising that mistakes are made and people get into a muddle.

I can’t see it catching on, but I wonder whether it would help to start referring to spelt as ‘spelt wheat’, which is precise and correct. It’s a losing battle, I guess, because it’s a word too long, and because those who are marketing spelt or products derived from spelt tend to do so by putting emphasis on its unwheatlike qualities (easier digestibility etc) and don’t always mention the w-word in relation to their wares, perhaps in order to pass them off as something more distinct than they actually are. This enforced separation of the two sibling grains – ie spelt wheat and common wheat – may please the “lifestyle gluten-avoiders”, as GF Beer Expert Sue Cane calls them, but, as she also suggested to me, may put coeliacs at risk because of lack of education and understanding in restaurants. And, in light of what’s just happened, it could be speculated, in magazines too…

Because make no mistake: spelt is a form of wheat. There are too many references to it being ‘wheat free’ across the web, and even in some otherwise apparently very good sources of information, products and reading – see here, here and here, for example. Saying spelt is wheat free feels to me like saying goat’s milk is milk free: surely it only confuses?

Spelt is often spoken about in ‘lower gluten’ terms and this too can be problematic, as true as it no doubt is. Here’s an Irish spelt bread firm, making a ‘low gluten’ claim on the label of its products, no longer permissable, unless I’m mistaken, under new labelling regulations.

You are, I hope, beginning to see the problem. And I’ve only scratched the surface, I suspect.

Words from the editor…
Anyway, back to Jamie Magazine. I wrote to them with my concerns and some of the above Tweeters’ remarks, and Andy Harris, the editor, has sent a full and sincere response, the gist of which I’ll outline.

Andy told me he and the team wanted to run a baking feature for people with specialist dietary requirements but they got caught up in some labelling issues and a fact-checking error was made, one which wasn’t picked up in the second round of proofing due to tight production deadlines. (I have many years’ former experience of this environment at magazines, and the pressure and time constraints involved can be immense.)

A lot has been and is being done to put things right:

* A correction and apology on the website;
* Ditto in the next edition of the magazine;
* Recipes amended in the JM database;
* Letters sent to 15,000 subscribers (40% of those receiving the magazine);
* Prompt response to complaints and queries – like mine…

Andy asked me what else I thought could be done, and I made some suggestions. I’ll keep you posted and update this blog if anything further comes of those ideas, but feel free to add yours below, as I’ll tell the team about this post.

They clearly feel bad – ‘awful’ and ‘mortified’, in Andy’s words – and I’m glad to report that they remain committed to running specialist-diet features in future, albeit with more care.

We all mess up. I’ve made a fair few mistakes (misspelling ‘coeliac’ throughout a chapter of my first book, seven years ago, springs to mind as I write – thankfully picked up by my proofreader), and I’ve blogged before about the reluctance of some to hold up their hands and admit to errors. Should we not give credit when people do?

So, although I suspect some may be mad at me, I vote we cut them some slack. Jamie Magazine’s team is trying to do a lot to put things right and I believe there’s genuine remorse and upset there. Diet-wise we are in a bloody mess in this country and any publication trying to champion good food and cookery should surely be supported, as much as possible.

Can we really demand apologies and be unforgiving when they arrive?

As always, I very much look forward to your thoughts.

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