Gluten Free Diets: Middle Class Snobbery?

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I am a vegan and have adopted a gluten free diet.  Right, now I’ve established my moral superiority over you, let me tell you what to think.

Coeliac disease is a severe auto-immune illness that causes the body to attack the intestines whenever one eats gluten that is found in common foods containing wheat, barley or rye.  Potentially it is believed that if untreated, those with the condition might develop bowel cancer, osteoporosis or infertility.  And their day to day lives, unless they adopt a gluten free diet, are blighted by stomach pains, diarrhoea, vomiting, fatigue, and anaemia.  If you have these symptoms and cannot explain them, for sure see your GP for a simple blood test to check if you are coeliac.  Fortunately, this condition is only diagnosed in 1 in 100 people (20 years ago it was even less – a quarter of that figure).  Coeliac advocates believe it may be underdiagnosed in the broader population by 75%, though what this speculation is based on is unclear.

Genuine coeliacs do need assistance from society with for example, making people aware not to use the same utensils when cooking the different foodstuffs as the tiniest amount of gluten can trigger a reaction, and also help with the costs of buying gluten free food because it is far more expensive.  NHS prescriptions for gluten free food are currently over £100m per year when delivery costs are factored in.

What coeliacs don’t need however, is the wrong sort of empathy where the concerned and healthy dinner party clique jump on the bandwagon and also say they want a gluten free diet.  Such is the fad now for all things gluten free that many celebrities who are not coeliac have adopted gluten free diets in an attempt to cement their fame.  These celebrities include Lady Gaga, Gwyneth Paltrow, Russell Crowe, Rachel Weisz, and Bill Clinton (who also converted to veganism), though this list is nowhere near exhaustive.  Furthermore, Nottingham University research has found that there are much higher levels of reported gluten freedom in affluent areas, suggesting middle class types are switching to quinoa for the purpose of distinguishing themselves from the masses.  In the US, polls have found over 30% of Americans now wish to switch to a gluten free diet.  Their ‘awareness’ is in essence, a self-proclaimed badge of superiority over the hordes who eat normal bread.

Of course if one has wheat intolerance but not coeliac disease, it still might make sense to cut out the gluten.  But is that intolerance really as common as is made out?  Unlikely.  With symptoms so broad as “feeling bloated after eating” or “becoming irritable”, wheat intolerance is probably over-egged.  What seems to be occurring, and this is common to many kinds of ‘awareness-raising campaign’, is that those who adopt a gluten free diet see it as a kind of spiritual conversion, a road to Damascus thing.  Hence on internet message boards, a common theme is “I feel so much better now” or “I’m more alive”, when there is no scientific basis for this.

The truth is actually the reverse – adopting a gluten free diet, unless necessary – is usually bad for you, both in terms of your health and your humanity.  On the health question, as reported in the journal Scientific American, Katherine Tallmadge, dietician and author of “Diet Simple” said, “Studies show gluten-free diets can be deficient in fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc.” That is, they’re worse for you than a normal diet.  Being malnourished is a far more pressing health problem than occasionally feeling bloated.

The craze for gluten free diets is also bad for humanity.  Not only is it a way for the middle class to advertise and conceptualise their undeserved higher social status, it also leads to some bizarre policy ideas that emerge from professional brainstorming sessions.  For example, if gluten might make workers irritable, does that affect their productivity, and therefore ought gluten products be banned in the workplace?  Furthermore, there is now an idea of “second-hand gluten exposure”, based on the formula of second-hand smoke that was used to outlaw smoking in any public building in the Western world.  ‘Naturopathic’ Doctor Lola Spring explained, “Our study has quite convincingly shown a link between exposure to airborne glutens and joint pain, skin problems, asthma, fatigue and mental fogginess.”  This very unconvincing study which thankfully is not yet accepted by the scientific community had children locked up in rabbit-style hutches to control the variables!

The blogger who reported on this study wrote, “New York City lawmakers are already considering regulations on gluten ingestion in the workplace. Are laws that restrict a parents right to eat pasta in their own home next? Probably. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”  Although the point about NY lawmakers cannot be verified – I believe it exists only very embryonically at the moment – the way irrational policy often emerges today from zany health panics is well established.  Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen by asserting that if you adopt a gluten free diet not out of health necessity but to say something about yourself, you are being ridiculous.  So ridiculous you may become to believe in ‘airborne glutens’.

Finally, am I being anti-choice in criticising people’s decision to adopt a gluten free diet?  Of course everyone should be free to have the diet of their choice, no matter how crazy it appears to others, but only a fool would choose to restrict their choices in this way.  And when those choices acquire the status of virtue, it is clear it’s not really about choice, but demonising lesser mortals and their cheap Tesco Value bread.  No-one’s saying the gluten free alternatives should be banned, but this new breed of ethical consumers do need to be held up to ridicule.