Gluten Free-for-All

(July 25, 2013) Hear the audio version

Have you been hearing the term gluten-free more lately? Well, I have, and I don’t think it’s only because my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease 21 years ago, and therefore follows a strict—and I mean strict—gluten-free diet: no wheat, barley, rye, or contaminated oats … ever. Even a crumb makes Molly violently ill. Long-term exposure could give her cancer. As her activist mother I’ve been promoting awareness about gluten and celiac disease for more than two decades. I thought it helped keep Molly safe and healthy.

Now I’m not so sure. Gluten-free is no longer an obscure food restriction; it’s a full-fledged fad and diet trend. Celebrities trumpet the supposed weight-loss properties of going gluten-free. It’s baloney. There are thousands more gluten-free products available than 20 years ago, but few would be considered “diet” fare. Even restaurants have jumped in. Ironically, that has made it harder for celiacs to go out to eat.

Why? Chefs used to come to our table when Molly ordered her meal. Now almost all servers know about gluten, but they underestimate its seriousness for celiacs. Awareness has led to complacency. In the last year Molly has gotten sick after eating at restaurants she used to be able to enjoy.

A national pizza chain promotes its gluten-free pizza, but it’s not safe for celiacs because of cross-contamination: all pizzas are made in the same kitchen and sliced with the same knives. Talk about exploiting a trend! As Dr. Stefano Guandalini, president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease said, “A product is either gluten-free or it is not.”

After extensive pressure from the celiac community, in February the FDA sent to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs a new set of rules dictating what foods can be labeled gluten-free. Yet nothing has been done about it.

Which is is too bad, because after the gluten-free bandwagon pulls out of town, there will still be millions of true celiacs in this country who could use the government’s help staying safe and healthy. It’s time to act, Mr. President.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.