Does gluten-free trump vegan?

Every now and then someone tweets some stuff that stays with me. Twitter user Lykara Ryder did that last month in a series of seven 140-character messages that were provocative, controversial and thought-provoking – and therefore excellent, because strong opinions are what I think we need to drive debate. I’ve posted them below in their original form, and trust she won’t mind my doing so (click on image to open). 

I disagreed with quite a bit at the time, and after more consideration I still do – for instance, vegan food can be cheerfully cheap – think beans, barley, root vegetables, rice – and the expensive ingredients in your supermarket these days are largely non-vegan – cheese, meats, fish. That said, I’m more interested in one of her other points: “Vegetarian / vegan food doesn’t belong in the ‘free from’ section …”

There is, unarguably, an overlap between vegan food and food for those with certain food sensitivities. Vegan food should be suitable for those with dairy or egg allergies, and some vegetarian food may be too. While it may sell itself as vegan or veggie, perhaps using ‘V’ or animal-friendly symbols, what is vegan if it is not ‘free from’ animal products? Surely by virtue of being ‘free from’ meat, fish and possibly dairy, eggs and honey, veggie or vegan food has every reason to be there?

Lykara seems to be expressing the view that the ‘free from’ aisle should be reserved only for foods for those diagnosed with a medical disease or condition. I could be wrong, but I suspect a lot of people to whom this applies would quite like the ‘free from’ aisle or section to lose any lingering association it has with ‘special diets’ or ‘illness’, so that they feel ‘normal’ and not a ‘special shopper’ in any way – after all, they use the rest of the supermarket along with ‘regular’ customers too.

A lot of commentators and bloggers in ‘free from’ remark about the high cost of many products. Keep the ‘free from’ aisle exclusive, and you’re working to maintain the status quo; open it up to vegans, veggies – and indeed those with religious sensibilities, the healthy-eating / healthy-lifestyle brigade and the plain curious – and you increase its potential for growth, and for innovation, and competition and reduced prices.

Is it about choice?
I know a lot of coeliacs, and follow a fair few on social media. A recurring grumble is outlets who cater for vegetarian diets, but not for gluten free ones. “But vegetarianism is a choice,” goes the complaint, quite often. “I have no choice but to be gluten free.” Underlying this appears to be the feeling that, somehow, they deserve some priority in the pecking order over the veggies: ‘If you’re going to cater for special diets, cater for those who need them first – and then cater for those who want them.’ Resistance towards vegan and veggie in the ‘free from’ aisle feels like a related grievance, to me.

Around 5% of people are vegetarian and 0.2% are diagnosed coeliacs, so, sometimes, supply and demand and basic economics drives the market – but with 8% of the population now buying into the GF market, I expect this is already in the process of changing.

But anyway, one could argue it’s disrespectful to some who avoid animal products to hold the view that they ‘only’ ‘want’ to do so. For some (most?) sensitive or considerate vegetarians and vegans, the idea or reality of consuming meat makes them feel pretty sick, and I’ve known at least two in my circle who’ve vomitted when inadvertently fed it. I doubt that feels like much of a choice to them. And for some to break a religious obligation would be soul destroying, emotionally and physically distressing. Do we have the right to ‘pull rank’ over what our dietary requirements or preferences are? Besides, when up to a third of coeliacs exercise the choice to not follow the gluten-free diet (studies here and here, but there are others), the ‘we have no choice’ claim might ring a little hollow to some sceptics. Clearly for many the choice between ‘eat what you like’ and ‘eat to make yourself extremely ill’ is no real choice in the practical sense, but how do you apply priority to these sorts of situations in a broader sense? Where do you draw lines and decide who ‘wins’?

No one wins, I say. We have to maintain the stance that all of us have the equal right to put into our mouths and bodies what we would like and need, and avoid putting in what we would not like and not need, and I guess that’s the core reason why I think the ‘free from’ aisle needs to be broad and inclusive and incorporate all reasons, all ingredients, all foods.

I think this will also help increase free-frommers’ awareness of other ‘free from’ requirements too. From time to time, I’m still shocked that some with milder sensitivities don’t realise that nuts (and other allergens) can and do kill. As coeliacs are already appreciating – gluten free is no longer only about them. Coeliacs get this, I think, but lifestyle gluten-avoiders need to get that being publically cavalier with their gluten consumption (eg ordering a GF meal, then going ‘what the hell?’ and plumping for profiteroles for dessert) endangers those for whom it is far more important – and I don’t think they do yet.

Similarly, in all the fanfare we’ve witnessed over the last twelve months concerning the gluten-free pizza bonanza, it’s been very easy to forget those with dairy-free requirements, who have been pretty much ignored. (Who can explain it? Is it so hard to offer a vegan cheese topping?) It’s naturally easy to take a ‘what about me?’ approach to discussions in ‘free from’, but we’re all guilty of forgetting others from time to time, and keeping ‘free from’ more open might help us remember them more.

I do think dairy free will be next on the ‘agenda’, and dairy sensitives, lactose intolerants (including lactose intolerant coeliacs) and vegans can, I reckon, work together if they do want to put pressure to improve their lot – and they’ll be far more effective as a team, not apart ...

With increased size comes increased power, but I think that even symbolically keeping ‘free from’ inclusive is worth the effort, just like the recent Allergy and Free From Show demonstrated, sitting alongside the V Delicious show as it did. It just seems to me to be the progressive, social way forward – and the right thing to do.

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