The year 2003 was significant in my family for many reasons. My dad got a consulting project in Saudi Arabia so we moved to Riyadh for a year in October. While that may have been a drastic move, the most impactful one was when our very Arab household became completely gluten-free. Try making baklava without gluten.
My mom has always had anemia, but there seemed to be something that was playing into her constant lack of energy and need for sleep. Multiple trips to the doctor resulted in a tentative diagnosis for her symptoms, which included damaged liver enzymes: liver cirrhosis. My mom, being the person she is, opted to go for a second opinion and went to a gastroenterologist. An endoscopy and colonoscopy later, she was officially diagnosed with Celiac Sprue, a chronic autoimmune disease of the digestive tract. Gluten had to be eliminated from her diet for good, if she wanted to be able to avoid malabsorption and damage to her intestine’s villi. Had it been left untreated, she could have faced serious complications, including infertility, severe bone loss, and risk of intestinal lymphoma cancer.
When she found out that it was hereditary, she had my brother and I tested. My brother had dormant genes that meant he could safely ingest gluten with no consequences, but I was the lucky one who had inherited Celiac from my mother. The cherry on top was finding out on my ninth birthday; so long birthday cake!
Of course, this was long before the gluten-free fad started. Back in 2003, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s were scarce on gluten-free options and alternatives. The only gluten-free bread that we could buy in the store, if we did not feel like baking our week’s worth of bread, was a needlessly expensive and terribly disgusting tapioca bread. If I was craving cookies, my mom had to order them online from The Gluten-Free Mall; I had to wait a week to satisfy my desire for sweets. The Celiac Support Association annually published a three-inch binder with an index of every brand in supermarkets that had gluten-free products that did not require alternatives; it became our grocery Bible and I was tasked with lugging it around the store and checking if every product my mom picked out was alright for us. We bought it every year and I would crack it open like a child on Christmas Day, in the hopes that there might be new items that were found to be gluten-free. My mom had to sit me down regularly and remind me of our mantra: “We don’t eat no WBRO!” — which stood for Wheat, Barley, Rye, and Oats, before I found out a couple of years ago that I was a Celiac who could consume oats that are harvested and packaged in an exclusively gluten-free facility.
According to the New York Times last year, “Sales of gluten-free products were expected to total $10.5 billion [in 2013], according to Mintel, a market research company, which estimates the category will produce more than $15 billion in annual sales in 2016.” Because of this, I am told that I should be grateful for the fad that gluten-free has now become. Unfortunately, it’s a gift with a whole lot of conditions and caveats attached that put people like me and my mom at risk. Thanks to celebrities and health gurus that have redefined the gluten-free diet as simply a hip health-craze, the 1.8 percent of Americans that are actually diagnosed with Celiac Disease have been forced to justify and defend the one option they have to treat their autoimmune disease.
Restaurants may have started labelling their gluten-free menu items, but going out to eat continues to be a stressful and sad event for me. First, I am faced with a highly desirable menu. When ordering, I always feel embarrassed for the tirade I know I have to run through, explaining to the waitstaff that I cannot eat gluten and that I am highly sensitive to cross-contamination. “Not because I want to, but because I have to,” I sheepishly say to the chef that sometimes comes out. And then, there is always one person at the table that bitingly says, “Oh, I’m sure it’s not that big of a deal. Gluten is not that serious of a threat; I’m not sure why everyone is jumping on this nonsense.” Shut up.
I am a Celiac with silent symptoms. Even the tiniest amount of gluten from a shared fork or a bread basket being passed over my plate can slowly attack my immune system and eat away at my intestines without giving me much discomfort. If I am not careful, and those around me aren’t aware, I will walk into my annual blood test check-up and have my doctor tell me that I now have a product of untreated Celiac that I cannot recover from. Celiac is quite enough for me to deal with, let alone a life-threatening disease resulting from it. Gluten-free fad followers have now allowed gluten to be downplayed as an irrelevant allergen. Not being taken seriously at restaurants that only produce gluten-free options for the gluten-free lemmings harms those of us who would like to believe that we are the targeted consumers. Instead, we are eating meals that have been haphazardly made without cross-contamination in mind. We are looking for gluten-free friendly spaces, not neo-organic food hubs.