Questions, Questions, Questions …

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 #isitok.    
These questions 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 wondering.”

The response to this post was strong (and was stronger before some editing).

Poster Purple 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.

Shazman called 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 them.”

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?”

Some posters 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?

For clarity’s 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?

Are there 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?

I suppose 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.