Those of you who
in the last few weeks have been watching Channel 4’s excellent show The Last Leg with Adam Hills –
essentially late-evening chat about the day’s Paralympics news, teamed with
banter and discussion – will have been familiar with a segment of the programme
tackling ‘questions you want to ask but don’t know whether you’re allowed to’ about
disability, sent in via Twitter by the public to the presenters and tagged
typically concerned awkward, embarrassing, or humorous and previously unvoiced but
sometimes probing enquiries about such matters as prosthetics, limb stumps and
disability etiquette: those things you may wonder about but would never have
the nerve or opportunity (or indeed lapse in manners) to ask. It was
refreshing, funny, informative and it chipped away at barriers. The segment
provided an environment where questions could be asked and discussed about a
subject many of us may feel uncomfortable or unconfident broaching. (You can
still catch the shows here.)
I was reminded
of this when on the day the Paralympics drew to a close, a member of the Expat
Woman forum in the Middle East posted a
question concerning food sensitives seeking out ‘free from’ foods. You can read
the full post here (read from the bottom up) but here’s the key gist of the
question she posed, lightly edited for clarity:
“Why do those who have these intolerances just not embrace
the fact that these foods [ie bread, pastas] are out of their diet and just
forget about them rather than trying to duplicate or imitate the original? Just
The response to
this post was strong (and was stronger before some editing).
said she was ‘boiling inside’, called the post ‘ridiculous’ and took offence at
the inferred suggestion that staple foods should be forgotten and that her
child should ‘embrace’ coeliac disease – even though this was framed as a
question, and further was directed at adults, not children.
the post ‘pointless, offensive, shallow-minded’.
I don’t know the
history of the board, its members, or the posts that have appeared there, but
at face value I didn’t view the question as deserving of such a response. I
think the OP is perhaps guilty of not treading as carefully as she might have
treaded in phrasing it, and maybe of a little thoughtlessness and naivety.
Common sense, it could be argued, should have told her what the first
responder, BritGeek, put into words for her (edited again):
“It's difficult to give up things you have been eating for
40 years overnight, especially if you love them! Not everyone has the willpower
to go without whilst the rest of the family eats cakes. Can you imagine giving
up your favourite foods and then watching your family eat it in front of you?”
But there are
other reasons which are perhaps less obvious to someone unaware of the issues
and which she could’ve been informed about. Convenience, for example – the
freedom to take with you a handy homemade sandwich made with GF bread. Safety,
too: ‘free from’ foods are made by companies who take measures to ensure they
are allergen-friendly. There aren’t loads of them about relative to ordinary
manufacturers, and many with allergies feel more secure consuming them, safe in
the knowledge that they won’t spot a ‘may contain’ warning when they’re
half-way through eating the food. You could also argue it’s important to
support the ‘free from’ industry, which in turn sponsors research and charities.
‘Forget’ about ‘free from’?
So, a few
reasons to seek out ‘free from’, then. But are there any arguments for moving
away from it? Coincidentally, at around the same time, regular poster MSG on
the Gluten Free Message Board made the following interesting point.
“I suspect one of the problems with
prescription-based food and all wheat-mimics generally is they keep alive the
memory of how real wheat-based foods taste, thus I think a coeliac consuming
such food is, in some circumstances, more prone to "cheat". Such
people are less likely to explore alternative foods and develop a taste for
This was a bit
of a new idea to me. I’m not sure we can say whether these suspicions are true
or not – whether consuming gluten-free bread makes you more susceptible to
taking a bite out of some passing glutenous bread, or whether eating
gluten-free pasta keeps you away from experimenting with quinoa – but it’s
certainly an interesting idea from which, I imagine, a lot could be gained in
discussing or researching.
Either way, the
point was that this was not an unsayable thing for a coeliac board: it was a
comment that could be absorbed into the fabric of the discussion and responded
to without raised hackles.
Anyway, back to
the original post. Apparently unperturbed, the OP pressed on:
“Why keep duplicating the foods that make you sick? Does
this not just perpetrate the feelings of missing out on all the "good
stuff"? Aren't a lot of these alternatives really over-processed foods – and
are these actually good for people who are sensitive to what they eat?”
pointed out that alternatives need not be ‘worse’ than gluten-containing foods,
but others were dismissive. The OP should “educate herself on the topic of
gluten free and Celiacs and other food intolerances before making such a
comment” said one, and was told “you know very little about
intolerance/allergies and how difficult it can be” by another.
Now, I imagine
years of experiencing lack of understanding, perhaps lack of diagnosis,
difficulty of eating out safely, and other problems I can’t even begin to imagine,
may leave some food-hypersensitivity sufferers or their carers more sensitive
to perceived criticism or sceptical questioning – which would be understandable
– so part of me feels very reluctant to criticise those I’ve quoted who
responded sharply to the OP.
And yet part of
me still thinks: blimey, all she did was ask questions…
Education, education, education …
So where does
this leave us?
I think most of
us involved, either professionally or personally, in the world of food
sensitivities will agree that, yes, people educating themselves about the
issues is hugely desirable and beneficial. But surely the freedom to ask, say,
difficult, provocative and even silly questions is an essential pre-condition
to open up the availability of that education? If people are made nervous of
asking possibly daft questions of those in the know, will it make them think
twice before even asking sensible ones – leaving them ignorant and Googling
around for the some of the nonsense that lives on the web?
sake: I’m all for ‘free from’ food. I like it, I write about it, I sit on the
panel of the FreeFrom Food Awards and judge it, I eat it – even though I don’t
need to. I know it has transformed people’s lives – but people outside of our world
may not know that it has transformed people’s lives. There is ignorance about
it, still: people outside our world do not always know how good it is, either –
I still see people describe gluten-free bread as tasting of cardboard, proof
positive they have not come across the output of Genius or Fria, say.
But this isn’t really
about ‘free from’ food. It’s about learning. It’s about ‘greater education’ –
among caterers, food manufacturers, shopkeepers and members of the public – that
we are always arguing is lacking and needed. Well, people learn by asking questions
(and, indeed, by getting things wrong). Do we not need to be free to ask, to be
open to be asked, and ready to answer?
questions we should never ask or be asked? The feel of the #isitok segment on
The Last Leg was that there shouldn’t be. Is “Why should the NHS subsidise your
sandwich and not mine?” an offensive question – or an opportunity to explain
the value of gluten-free prescriptions to the health of coeliacs? Is “How long
would it take for you to collapse if you accidentally ate a peanut?” an
insensitive, crass question of a severely food allergic – or a chance to
educate on the enormous danger of cross-contamination?
context and tone (often lost or difficult to gauge online) matters, too, and
everyone will have their own line, but I’m leaning towards feeling that we need
to give a sort of default benefit of the doubt. People curious enough to ask
about issues of relevance to us need to be given permission to cock up so that
they’re not nervous of cocking up, and not afraid to ask questions for fear of
harsh responses. Many already view food sensitives as fussy eaters and those
professionally involved in the sphere as guilty of indulging them – are we in
danger of being seen as having chips on our shoulders too?
That thread has
died down now, but it’s there, to be stumbled upon by others, who will see
someone asking a question about ‘free from’ and getting a telling off. And I
think that’s a bit of a shame.
I look forward
to your thoughts.
Labels: free from food