how gluten free are you?

They have these fancy gluten-free bagels in one of the dining halls here for students that are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease.

As the head of dining services has asserted many times in our various interactions these bagels, much like the other special gluten-free baked goods, are considerably more expensive than  your run-of-the-mill, wheat-filled bagels breads. But the school buys them so that gluten-allergic students can  make sandwiches and whatnot like everybody else. There’s even a gluten-free toaster available for use. If you’re gluten free and you want a toasty piece of bread, bagel, etc, it can be done pretty readily in the dining hall without a lot of extra time and effort.

Despite the facility of the whole thing, one of those fancy gluten free bagels popped out of the regular toaster as I was walking past today. Using the regular toaster is like putting little gluten sprinkles all over, successfully just glutenizing your gluten-free food.

What?

The owner of the bagel walked up,  saying to her friend, “well, I’m not THAT intolerant, so it doesn’t matter if I use the regular toaster.”

For starters, I’m really glad that her friend evidently asked the same thing that I was wondering: why would you put a gluten-free bagel in the toaster if you are allergic to gluten?

But that also made me think about what it means to be gluten intolerant and what it means to have celiac disease. While yes, they are two different things, they are both defined by the body reacting very negatively to gluten. Celiac has a much more obvious negative reaction to gluten, but gluten intolerance can be pretty hazardous to the body too, even if it isn’t as noticeable.

Both directly affect the gut.

Celiac disease is a direct autoimmune reaction, during which the presence of gluten triggers your body to attack its own tissue, specifically the intestinal lining. This can lead to GI problems as well as malabsorption, neurological problems, etc. Gluten sensitivity is different. In 2011, a team at the University of Maryland hypothesized that a person with gluten sensitivity experiences a direct reaction to gluten. The body sees gluten as the invader and directly attacks it with inflammation both inside and outside the digestive track.

Both sound pleasant, eh?

Neither one is fun to have. Both cause problems that can directly affect your daily living. Even if being gluten sensitive doesn’t render you unable to leave your couch, like celiac disease can, it still can create neurological symptoms, bloating, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea due to the inflammation of the digestive tract. Headaches, lethargy, attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, muscle weakness/disturbances and joint pain are also symptoms of gluten insensitivity.

Even if you’re ‘intolerant’, you can still do a lot of harm to your body by eating gluten.

Furthermore, people that claim to be intolerant, yet publicly make a lot of exceptions (for gluten, dairy, and other allergies), make it harder for food allergies and intolerances to be seen as a serious problem by the food industry. Several times, I’ll go into a restaurant and have a server suggest that “maybe a little butter in the vegetables would be ok?” or “a few breadcrumbs won’t matter, right?”  because of people that say they have a problem and then make an exception because it is easier to do so, instead of trying to find something that is allergy-friendly.

This type of behavior undermines the process to get allergies recognized as legitimate concerns. Just because it can be harder to be gluten-free or dairy-free doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stick to it. The more people that start asking for allergy-friendly options, the easier it will become to find options.

Look at vegetarians.

Vegetarianism used to be hard, but now there are vegetarian options everywhere, because they stuck at it. They stuck to their guns and decided to be vegetarian, even if it was a hassle. And now we accept vegetarianism as a part of everyday life, even though less than 5% of Americans say that they never eat meat. Like people with food allergies and intolerances, they are a small part of the population, yet still have successfully managed to get their cause recognized and accepted.

We can only do the same if we are equally persistent. Important things don’t get done when we choose to take the easy road.

Only through banding together can people with food allergies and intolerances become recognized as legitimate, and hopefully one day getting a gluten-free, dairy-free dish at a restaurant will be as commonplace as those veggie burgers that get served daily across the country.

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