Damian Cardone vs celiacs / coeliacs and the gluten free: a very modern food intolerance

Internet-savvy coeliacs will be aware of the recent furore that kicked off online concerning an American chef by the name of Damian Cardone, who on his Facebook page earlier in March made some unsavoury comments about gluten-free diners at a restaurant at which he worked, claiming to have fed them gluten-containing food. I think I first read about it here.

He wrote: “Gluten free is bullshit!! Flour and bread have been a staple of life for thousands, THOUSANDS of years. People who claim to be gluten intolorent dont realize that its all in there disturbed liitle heads.”

He goes on to describe how he reguarly serves gluten intolerants pasta made from high-gluten flour: “NOTHING ever happens! People leave talking about how good they feel gluten free and guess what, They just had a full dose! Idiots!”

I won’t bother with the falsity of his argument or foolishness of his logic – or poverty of his spelling. It’s been adequately covered by coeliacs in the chat forums and even on some of the news sites – mostly Stateside.

Because when spotted and the news spread, coeliacs the world over were understandably enraged. Twitter and Facebook feeds were given a thorough workout – a #damiancardone hashtag was even mooted on Twitter, but never really took off. The blogs came – then the comments came. There was even a video on YouTube.

I suspect a lot of people learned a lot about coeliac in those days – that the message about the disease got out to quite a few who’d never heard of it. Unquestionably, that is a good thing.

Cardone’s FB page has since, I understand, been taken down. The restaurant at which he worked has denied the deliberate poisonings could ever have happened (though they appear, as an innocent party, to be suffering the consequences regardless). No one to my knowledge has come forward to claim they were made ill by having dined there. Last I read, his whereabouts were not known.

Just writing that last line makes this whole affair feel like a bit of a witchhunt, and I’m sorry to say that last week that’s really what it felt like at times. One or two appalling commenters aside (wishing coeliac disease on him, calling for him to be poisoned), no single individual was responsible for making me feel like this – but in combination, as I watched the events unfold, the mass of angry voices did make me feel uncomfortable, irrespective of the educational benefits that might have ultimately come out of it. It’s good that this seems to have calmed down now, and suppose that the relevant authorities will take whatever action, if any, they need to take (first – interview him, I guess, but that’s for them to decide).

But this post isn’t really about him and what happens next. I’m more keen on exploring an issue that has come out of the whole affair, namely the views which people without food sensitivities have about people with food sensitivities.

In the mind?
We have to assume the chef’s rant faithfully represents what he thinks. (This is a real assumption, as he later acknowledged in comments that gluten could be a problem for some. And I don’t believe we’ve heard from him since.) Even if so, my point is he is far from unique. There are others out there who think like he thinks or appears to think. What is it in society that produces these views in certain individuals? Why do some – even those working with food – still think gluten-free is all in the mind?

Gluten-free is not all in the mind of those diagnosed with coeliac disease.

Neither is it all in the mind of those with coeliac disease, but still undiagnosed (at least four out of five of those who have it).

Neither is it all in the mind of those with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, increasingly recognised as a genuine physiological condition.

But – and we cannot simply sweep this possibility under the carpet – it could well be in the minds of some people.

Food aversion is a little-known psychological response to food. It’s not especially common, but it happens. People react when they knowingly eat a food. They don’t react when they unknowingly eat it. The cases I’ve heard of have involved foods such as eggs and beans, not wheat, but I’m merely exploring possibilities.

There is another group of people we need to consider, and it is those who are self-diagnosing mild gluten intolerances. I’ve written before on this blog about how unsafe self-diagnosis is in the field of food sensitivities – and I suspect it happens a lot. I read an American piece online not long ago (maddeningly, I can’t now find it), in which a chef stated that he believed some in the food industry don’t take gluten issues seriously because some diners request a gluten free starter, a gluten free main, and then order profiteroles or cake for dessert, on the basis that they can manage a little gluten without side effect. It’s not hard to imagine a picture where some people, over time, come to view this sort of thing with some scepticism. And, from there, not hard to imagine a few of those getting very, very irritated…

Throw into the pot those people who avoid or try to avoid gluten for perceived health benefits (maybe they feel less bloated, or whatever) and you’ve got quite a diverse mix of people for whom gluten is an issue.

And the spectrum is wide – from those for whom a contamination of a single crumb can trigger days of exquisite pain and diarrhoea, to those who can and do consume a piece of cake. Each member of each group is an individual, presenting their own gluten requests and requirements uniquely, wrapped up in their own personality quirks, and informed by their own exposure to gluten-related information – whether accurate or inaccurate. And every impression formed after every gluten-related conversation will be different too. It’s sprawling and uncontrollable, and not all those impressions will be the ones we want.

Gluten confusion
Why is it such a mess? Well, how long have you got? Coeliac isn’t fully understood. Gluten intolerance certainly isn’t. Labelling isn’t perfect. People use different definitions for gluten. Coeliac is a weird word, which some can’t pronounce and many can’t spell.

That’s just the start of it. People say gluten makes them fat. Celebrities say they give up gluten to detox. You can roll your eyes about this but we live in a world in which people believe in astrology and crystal healing. Mumbo-jumbo exists and breeds and every one of us has a part to play in whether it continues to thrive or veers towards extinction.

I’m going to stick my neck out and perhaps be a bit controversial here, but I’d love your views on the following.

If gluten is a concern in your world, at whatever level, then my feeling is you need to be informed of gluten concerns across all levels – and, more importantly, how you present yourself on this front to the outside world.

If you’re mildly gluten intolerant, don’t call yourself a coeliac and then order a pastry – it is confusing to staff.

If you’re a coeliac who has been told your meal will ‘probably’ be free of gluten contamination but that this can’t be guaranteed, don’t take the risk and eat there – “it can’t be that serious a disease if they're prepared to risk it,” staff will think.

If you’re neither but dine with or serve people who are, then respect their decisions and requests and dietary quirks or needs and be supportive if needs be. Plenty of people have issues with plenty of foods for plenty of reasons – nut allergics, some religious groups and pork, vegetarians / vegans, those who find some foods unpalatable (eg sprouts), those who find some foods unethical (foie gras). Gluten issues are just another. We all have the right to eat and not eat what we want and what we can or can’t. And to be served food that we asked for.

People who work with food need to be taught, not only about coeliac, but that some people are gluten-free for other reasons. The word celiac / coeliac has to become mainstream. (Interestingly, Cardone does not appear to have used it.)

People need to stop being intolerant to food intolerances and other sensitivities. But that’s an obvious one.

Learn, teach, share, engage, discuss, argue and disagree, including with me. But let’s do it civilly, and try not to rant or lose our cools, even if the www has made it so easy for us to do so. Because Cardone’s comments are just one manifestation of an underlying problem which remains out there, and which is a collective responsibility to resolve in the best manner possible.

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