Coeliac disease is not a lifestyle choice
‘Gluten-friendly’, ‘Gluten-conscious’ and ‘Lifestyle Eating’are just a few of the strange and questionably legal labels I’ve seen applied to gluten free food recently.
‘Freefrom’ is the term that has traditionally been used to label gluten free, dairy free, and other allergen-free foods in supermarkets. Unfortunately, I was greeted with a rather less useful sign when I walked into Sainsbury’s this week: ‘Lifestyle eating’.
I got a bit cross, and after some nudging from the excellent Gluten Free B, I decided to break my blogging silence and write about it properly.
‘Lifestyle eating’ insinuates that eating gluten free (or any allergen-free) is a lifestyle choice, which is rather insulting when you have to eat that way due to a chronic health condition.
It perpetuates the assumption that people with coeliac disease and/or food allergies are fussy and faddy, and this has a direct consequence for people with coeliac disease; it leads to people catering for us taking us less seriously and potentially making us ill when they think that ‘a little bit won’t hurt’.
A name change may seem trivial, but to me, rebranding of ‘freefrom’ foods in the supermarket is worrying. Many people with coeliac disease in the UK have recently lost their right to get gluten free basic foods on prescription because of the availability of gluten free foods in supermarkets. (#SaveOurNHS) (Why are gluten free prescriptions important for coeliacs? – Coeliac UK)
If supermarkets are moving away from a medical association with freefrom foods, and in some cases clearly marketing more to the ‘gluten free out of choice’ crowd, where does that leave us? What happens when the trend for gluten free food and ‘clean eating’ dies down?
You can see in the photo that this particular Sainsbury’s has dedicated more shelf space to energy bars and luxury granola than actual staple gluten free products. If people with coeliac disease are to rely on supermarkets for gluten free staple foods now that an increasing number of NHS trusts don’t provide them, does there need to be a guarantee that supermarkets WILL provide the essentials going forward?
Mis-labelling gluten foods
‘Lifestyle eating’, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. I have seen so many examples of mis-labelling gluten free foods in restaurants and cafes, presumably to get around the legal requirements for gluten free foods.
‘Gluten-conscious’ and ‘gluten-friendly’ are two of the most annoying examples, but ‘made without gluten ingredients’ is fairly common, as are similar phrases to indicate foods that are sort-of-gluten-free, but not in a legally-binding way. (Read more about my frustration with foods that are “Gluten free”, but not suitable for coeliacs.)
I’m not sure what the answer is. I wouldn’t want to discourage restaurants and cafes from offering gluten free options, or supermarkets from stocking gluten free products, but at the same time, I am not comfortable with the distancing of gluten free foods from the legal, medical meaning and the association with coeliac disease.
It is also not clear to me if anyone is actually checking up on this stuff – what are the consequences for businesses who claim their foods are “gluten-friendly”? How are supermarkets getting away with placing gluten free foods under a ‘lifestyle’ banner, making bold claims about gluten free foods being ‘healthier choices’, and charging the earth for anything freefrom?
In the case of ‘Lifestyle eating‘, I @’d Sainsbury’s, as did a fair few other angry coeliacs. One gluten free blogger direct messaged me to say that they work for Sainsbury’s and will be taking this further internally. I haven’t heard anything from Sainsbury’s apart from the brief comment below (has anyone else?).
Is this the price we pay for having more choice?
With all this said, the popularity of the diet has undoubtedly benefitted me and other coeliacs. Being able to pop to a gluten free bakery is still a joy for me, and knowing that I can pick up gluten free basics in most UK supermarkets is priceless. I’ve lived with coeliac disease since 1993, and I can safely say that I prefer things as they are now.
However, is there a way of retaining this wealth of choices without losing the meaning of the the gluten free diet completely? After all, for at least 1% of the population, it is the medical treatment for a serious illness, far from an aspirational lifestyle choice.
What do you think of Sainsbury’s new signage? Have you noticed any ridiculous ways of labelling things gluten free?
Please feel free to share your rage in the comments.
I would also love to hear from any caterers, medical specialists or journalists who know more about the legal side of this!
Yours gluten freely (not friendly, not consciously!),
- Coeliac UK’s guidance for catering gluten free
- Food.gov’s legal guidance for labelling foods gluten free