2014: a year in coeliac, intolerance and allergy

We’ll gloss over my failed prediction from last year’s round-up that low-FODMAP ready meals would be in our supermarkets by the end of 2014 (by end of 2015, definitely ... ) and instead kick-off where I left off - with scientists doing remarkable work.

We heard this year that drugs to help coeliac patients may be only a few years away, and that oral immunotherapy offers a real, promising road forward for peanut allergies. The potential to manipulate gut bacteria to better manage, prevent or even cure allergies and autoimmune continued to be an active area. Then there was the concept of gluten-free 'pre-digested wheat flour', which uses enzyme technology and which we may be hearing much more of in 2015, not to mention the interesting, albeit controversial, goings-on in so-called 'gluten-friendly wheat' too - where using a microwave process wheat is modified and the gluten reduced and its nature altered, so much so that is appears to be no longer 'recognised' by the immune system of coeliacs.

It was this last story which prompted a furious response from influential US blogger Gluten Dude - complete with alarmist GM mock-up and stick-it-up-your-arse sentiment. I didn't like it, and said so, but the episode demonstrated the anti-science feeling that can still in this day blight discussion and hamper public understanding of what is presently happening in food hypersensitivity research - and indeed scientific method as a whole - a real pity, and something we should continue to challenge.

A bigger story concerned the now infamous Gibson et al study looking at patients with self diagnosed non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and which found that FODMAPs and the so-called 'nocebo' effect were far likelier causes for symptoms than gluten in this subset of patients. The study was published in 2013, but only seemed to cause a stir in May of this year, perhaps following the publication of the results of a survey from the same team in April which found that most self-reporting NCGS sufferers didn't satisfy its diagnostic criteria.

The media on the whole reported all this quite well, but headline writers - those invisible sub-editors whose names are unlikely to be known or seen to us, and whose job it is to eye-catch or stir up interest - plumped for extreme or 'all-in-the-head' accusing titles that again summoned the outrage of various branches of the food sensitive community - most audibly from those who had apparently not properly read the studies, Gibson's team's conclusions, or indeed the largely good reporting found underneath those headlines. It was great when Gluten Dude later interviewed Gibson to air his case, and produced a very good Q&A from it.

There was other strong journalism - this piece from Michael Specter in the New Yorker was perhaps the best I've seen in years (though frustratingly some opted to hate it) - and a terrific larger work in Dr Alessio Fasano's Gluten Freedom book, which I had intended to review, but which I can belatedly heartily recommend as an excellent read, from which you will learn a lot.

As ever, there was regrettable rubbish. Rod Liddle's ignorance sticks in the memory for all the wrong reasons, the Daily Mail continued its attacks on those who believe food to be making them ill, Marie Claire inexplicably called gluten-free beauty a life-saver, but right tits of the year is justly awarded to the team at Time Out London who considered this an acceptable way to review a sandwich.

There were other villains, though some partly redeemed themselves. This was the year I lost all respect for tennis player Novak Djokovic, who took to advertising gluten-free biscuits. Meanwhile, House of Fraser tried to sell shoes on the back of the anti-gluten bandwagon (later deleting it all, it seems), and Tesco's widespread - and often ludicrous - 'may contain' labelling caused social media uproar. The campaign to keep Alpro soya products nut-free kicked off in 2013 but enjoyed substantial, albeit incomplete, success throughout this year - you can see updates here, from the Alpro SOS team. Lastly, companies' refusal to use social media to publicise food recalls of their products - or provide a reasonable explanation for such a policy - continued to baffle the 'free from' community: the Genius case was perhaps the best example we had yet seen.

Undoubtedly, though, the year has been dominated by the build up to the new FIC regulations, particularly in relation to allergens, which came into full effect merely weeks ago. In recent months I've realised that finding errors on labels in supermarkets is not unlike looking for hay in a haystack - as I draft this, Alexa at YesNoBananas has tweeted me this hazelnut-containing product which fails to name the nut in its list of ingredients - and I expect the problems to take months, even all year, to resolve to the point where they become a real rarity on our shelves.

As far as eating out is concerned, there are already depressing signs of all-encompassing defensive labelling taking place, but it is in 2015 that we will really see the whole FICing thing in action, and I don't expect it will always be pretty. Let's hope more initially sceptical chefs such as Aldo Zilli come on board, and that the new FreeFrom Eating Out Awards, awarded for the first time in 2014, will further help boost understanding of the laws as they apply to food service, and help increase options for sensitive diners.

So, a mixture of good and bad. What were your high and lowlights? I'm optimistic for 2015 - more scientific developments and more eating out options are what I expect to see. What about you?

Other 2014 Round-up Posts
* Carly's at GlutenFreeB.
* Kevin's at Gluten Free by the Sea.
* Sarah's at The GF Blogger
* Sue's at Sue Cane's Coeliac Diary (Coeliacs Matter)
* Ruth's at What Allergy

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