Fads, toilets and ‘free from’

Somebody called Stacie Stewart on a television show called Food Glorious Food said something about eating gluten being worth it for a day on the loo.

The online floodgates opened, of course. She was called stupid; she was called a moron; she was called shameful.

The Happy Coeliac – temporarily suspending living up to her name – shared her thoughts in a much commented-on blog here, which summarises the event itself and captures the resulting online mood quite well.

I didn’t watch the clip for four days. I’ve watched it now. You can do so here until mid-April (15:30ish in; after the irritating ads).

It’s a difficult one to judge, because coeliac isn’t mentioned, and it’s not clear whether the man in the clip is gluten sensitive. From Stewart’s comment one could easily infer he is, and that she understands diarrhoea is a symptom in such cases. Since, we've learned that he wasn’t coeliac. So why did she say what she said? I really don’t know – perhaps she’d merely assumed he was, or perhaps he’d told her gluten didn’t agree with him, or something – but it strikes me that it was meant lightly, was delivered off-the-cuff and clearly was not intended to offend, albeit perhaps ignorant of the longer-term effects in some.

That alleged ignorance seems to have got a lot of backs up, but in my experience a vast amount of ordinary people do know that coeliacs cannot eat bread, cake, pasta and more, do know that it can give them the trots, but do not know about the internal or lasting damage gluten can cause coeliacs, and view it much as lactose to lactose intolerants, for whom, with a few exceptions, a day on the loo is pretty much as bad as it gets. Can we blame her for this, if true in her case? Can you honestly say that you know every in and every out of diabetes? Of kidney disease? Not everyone can be a doctor when it comes to other people’s diseases.

She works with food, and she should arguably know more than the average punter, I agree – but in that she may not she is hardly unique. Ignorance should not automatically be seen as a disgraceful sin: rather a sign that work remains to be done.

Stewart apologised on Twitter, although perhaps was a little slow to do so. As I've suggested, she took much flak online – some of it unpleasant, though sadly that’s hardly unusual these days, and has shown some signs of struggling to deal with it, though has mostly managed it well. Carol Vorderman, whose voiceover described gluten-free as a fad, copped some of it too: I have no time for her detox plans, but her crime on this occasion, as far as I can see, appears to have been that of reading from a script given to her by her employers.

(A fad diet is a diet which enjoys temporary popularity, then wanes. GF will always be here to some extent due to necessity, and it is obviously never faddish in the case of CD, but it is unlikely to always be popular among ‘lifestyle’ avoiders or weight-loss dieters, as misguided as they may or may not be, so it may well eventually prove itself to have been a fad among these groups. Seems to me, though, that this can only be decided retrospectively, so it was wrong of Vorderman’s scriptwriter to describe it so, but only on this basis, in my view. ‘Trend’ would have been a better word, for it is ongoing, but even that is unsatisfactory, and requires the same clarification: that for some it is ‘trendy’, but for others medical necessity. As often is the case with these matters, conveying information accurately is time-consuming, and the simple option gets chosen. This has echoes of newspaper articles describing coeliac disease an ‘allergy’ or ‘intolerance’: not strictly true, but easier than getting embroiled in an explanation of autoimmune.)

The blame as I see it lies with the producers of this show. Any food show in which health is discussed should be vetted by a dietitian and/or doctor before broadcast. I doubt this happened. Had it, the silly quip would surely have been edited out, or a voiceover added to clarify the scenario. A dietitian would have noticed that using the word ‘fad’ might be inflammatory, open to misinterpretation and neither fully nor accurately representative. FGF, of course, have received their share of complaints: their possibly not-sincere-enough apology on their Facebook page seems to underestimate the upset caused.

They have missed some points. The criticisms levelled at them concerning lack of research seem fair and have not been addressed. There was lack of clarity in the situation; context was not properly given. An apology on FB is clearly insufficient: a clarification on a forthcoming episode really would be. Events like this don’t help the ‘cause’ at all. Some people’s views of gluten-avoiders as fussy eaters will have been reinforced by the broadcast – something which justifiably makes coeliacs want to bang their heads on the nearest wall – and someone, somewhere, will have been left with the idea that it is not as serious as they’d been led to believe.

This is maddening, I know, because it sets us back, and it undermines on many levels, but sometimes I think deep breaths before reaction are required. Because I also fear that there has been damage to the perception among ordinary folk of coeliacs as really very angry people – witness some of the responses to links given above, but also go search for it on Twitter. While some of the comment has been well observed, some of it has been undoubtedly OTT and lacking perspective. I’ve seen demands for apologies made of Stewart by people who in my view should be instead offering her one. I know this stuff is vitally important, but people will fear getting involved in ‘free from’ or engaging with the community if we react like this: we cannot afford to scare people away.

Stacie was perhaps ignorant, but this is not intended as an insult and it shouldn’t always be thought of as one. She merely didn’t know about ‘free from’ – that it could taste great, for example. She later learned that it could, and appeared to admit she’d been wrong: a good thing. Many long-standing free-frommers will know that it hasn’t always been so, and that improvements over the last decade have been remarkable. Some people are still learning about this. It takes time.

Quite why a diarrhoea joke was considered apt for a food show, I probably won’t ever know, but I do feel there are far more deserving targets for our ire than a seemingly fun, sparky girl whose unintentionally flippant remark failed to end up on the cutting room floor where it belonged, and whose employers have been cavalier with their editing and production.

As the bluster dies down, among the questions we need to ask is whether FGF is now more likely or less likely to feature special diets or ‘free from’ food on their show again, and I suspect the answer is the latter.

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