Food allergies have been my professional focus for many years now, although I’m fortunate not to suffer myself. And while we do a lot of research to help understand what it’s like to have a food allergy, there’s nothing better than firsthand experience. So with the launch of coeliac awareness week last week, a few of us in the office thought it would be a good idea to get involved and go gluten-free. Here are a some of our findings:
Without exception we concluded that clear food labelling is essential. I’m sure you’ve all raised your eyebrows when you’ve read the back of a packet of mixed nuts and seen the warning ‘CONTAINS NUTS’. Ok it’s stating the obvious, but without compulsory labelling buying pre-packed foods would be almost impossible for people with food allergies.
As soon as you start checking the labels you realise foods contain lots of ingredients you might not expect to find – I even found that my milk chocolate bar ‘may contain gluten’ – a real risk or not? How can I tell? With the time of her supermarket shop increasing dramatically, Sarah found herself naturally gravitating towards foods with clear allergen labelling boxes to speed things up. I agree clear labelling is a must.
Generally we felt that eating at home and cooking from scratch was easy and didn’t mean a huge deviation from our normal lives and normal diets, but Ann found ‘advice about rye and oats to be confusing and conflicting’ and as a ‘reluctant potato eater’ her diet of rice, rice and more rice got tedious. We all gave the gluten-free breads and biscuits a go, and were impressed by the taste, but not very impressed by the price – not something we’d choose regularly.
Another stumbling block was hunger, if we were eating a gluten-free diet permanently I’m sure we’d get more inventive with our food choices, but during the week we generally relied on fruit for breakfast and salads for lunch – not enough to keep hunger at bay in the afternoon. Ann admits to raiding Terrence’s chocolate supplies (I don’t think he knows that yet) and Jo found herself hunting for snacks in the vending machine. Without being able to read the labels it was a game of roulette.
It’s the situations where there was no food labelling that were the biggest challenge for all of us – especially when eating out. We know from reading food labels that there is a lot of flour added to foods to thicken them up, so although you can choose the option without bread, pasta or pastry it’s impossible to know what might be lurking – unless you ask. We all had slightly different approaches, but none of us was comfortable with ‘making a fuss’.
Jo and Ann just kept their fingers crossed that there were no hidden surprises, but this would not be an option if you had a food allergy. Sarah was more dedicated, but found that there weren’t any gluten free options on the menu so, she sat empty plated while her friends enjoyed their meal and then fixed herself something she knew was gluten-free when she got home. I tried to do the right thing and put in an order for a gluten-free lunch option at a meeting I attended, but when this didn’t arrive I was left nibbling on fruit while everyone else tucked into their sandwiches.
It’s been a useful experiment and I’m pleased with what the Agency has achieved on food labelling rules in Europe. Although it might seem like an added pressure on businesses, it is a life saver for people with food allergies. The other big realisation for us was the challenge of eating out. We have made a commitment in our Strategic Plan to ‘increase the provision of information about allergens, including in catering establishments’ and our newly published factsheet on gluten-free labelling is one step forward.
If you have an allergy it would be interesting to hear your experiences. If you don’t, why don’t you try going gluten-free for a week and see what it’s like.