5.28.2012 Update: Probably the most comprehensive article on the subject of gluten free labels can be found here.
This week Domino’s Pizza announced its new gluten free pizza crust! Cue everyone with Celiac Disease sighing in exasperation.
While this new pizza crust has no gluten ingredients in it, it is cooked in the same ovens as other pizzas, cut with the same utensils, and placed on the same surfaces. The fact that there is loose flour used in the restaurant means that everything is – by default – contaminated with gluten. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that these type of schemes are capitalizing on the gluten free “weight loss” bandwagon, and minimizing the seriousness of Celiac Disease. Would you try to sell a peanut butter-free PB&J to someone who could die from eating peanuts, and then cut it with a knife that was recently in the peanut butter jar?
Would you try to market peanut-free cookies to someone with a peanut allergy, and then sprinkle them with peanut dustings? If this sounds ridiculous to you, it’s because society understands that peanut allergies can be life-threatening, and should be treated like the severe medical condition that they are. Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet with Celiac Disease.
While I don’t risk anaphylaxis if I eat trace amounts of gluten, I do experience an auto-immune reaction that will leave me sick, in pain, dehydrated, and facing a long recovery. Some people with Celiac Disease end up in the hospital or experience resulting issues like Refractory Celiac Disease, where you continue to have symptoms even after gluten is out of your system. I’ve heard of people who need blood transfusions after they’ve eaten contaminated food, and people who miss weeks of work or school. Having Celiac Disease means that you have a higher predisposition for other auto-immune disorders, and accidental gluten can trigger catastrophic health outcomes.
Because of all this, I don’t really understand the concept of providing gluten free products that are 100% contaminated and unsafe for people who suffer from Celiac Disease. I know that many people have jumped on the gluten free bandwagon as a way to “lose weight”. I know that Kim Kardashian thinks it’s an excellent way to get a “hot bod” but says that it’s “hard”. But it’s not truly hard until you have to fear that your food will come back to punch you in the stomach, or until you have to ask 100 questions about production practices and cross contamination issues. In comparison, it’s a breeze to just cut out gluten ingredients.
Domino’s is catering to people who think going gluten free is a good weight loss tool, because anyone with an actual medical issue cannot eat their pizza. The ironic part is that eating gluten free pizza – for people without a medical problem associated with gluten – is basically the same as eating “normal” pizza. It won’t help you lose weight, leaving me wondering who actually needs contaminated gluten “free” pizza.
Domino’s did issue a disclaimer, stating that the pizza is not safe for people with Celiac Disease. But here’s where I’m confused: you wouldn’t label anything with trace amounts of peanut as “peanut free”, so how can you label something coated in gluten as “gluten free”? It’s hard enough to navigate the gluten-free dining scene without confusing people about the seriousness of the issue. And while many people with Celiac Disease know how to ask the right questions, it takes a while to learn that. I still get tripped up sometimes, and I generally know what I’m doing.
I suppose there’s some progress: people know what gluten is now. But we’re moving backwards if when I ask about gluten free options, people think I’m on a weight-loss bandwagon. I need people to take me seriously. So seriously that if a restaurant or a person cannot accomodate me, I need them to tell me. I’m fine being turned down, but I’m not fine getting sick. I don’t expect restaurants to fall over backwards to accomodate my special conditions, but I need them to understand enough to let me know when eating there is unsafe. I’m constantly correcting people who point out all the gluten free options around me, and then get sheepish when I start asking about production practices and cross contamination. No wonder everyone is shocked by how sensitive I am when Domino’s is throwing around the term “gluten free” like it’s nothing.
I know that Domino’s doesn’t owe me anything. They don’t owe me a gluten free crust that is safe to eat. I don’t need to eat at Domino’s. I’m upset because they are making it more difficult for me to eat anywhere, including out of other people’s kitchens. They are working to confuse everyone about how serious this condition is.
So Domino’s, thank you for the disclaimer. Thanks for confusing everyone about the seriousness of my medical condition, and potentially exposing others with serious health problems to unsafe food. Hopefully someday this mythical “weight loss” gluten free diet fad will pass by, and you’ll come to your senses and go back to serving properly labeled fast food to the masses.
Add on – 5/9/2012: Domino’s and the NFCA are adamant that this new line of “gluten free” crusts was added for those who are “gluten sensitive”. (See their tweet here.) To me, “gluten sensitive” is still a medical issue, and those who are sensitive to gluten should still not eat food that is knowingly contaminated.
At the end of the day, labelling is important. Using “gluten free” in Domino’s case is diluting the meaning of the term gluten free. Look what happened to the label “free range”. When free range was first instituted, many people hoped it would reflect standards used outside the United States in which chickens are raised outside, get much of their nutrition and sustenance through natural foraging, and produce eggs that are high quality and nutrient dense. However, USDA labelling just requires that “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside“ to qualify for free range labelling. This means that technically “free range” labels apply to chickens even if “access to the outdoors” is one little door that’s opened after the chickens are too old to know they should go through it. It doesn’t matter if the door leads to a small dirt enclosure. It doesn’t matter if the chickens live their whole lives stuffed into a giant hen house with so many other chickens that they cannot stand. It doesn’t matter if the chickens are de-beaked or standing in fecal matter or treated with a number of other inhumane practices. It’s still “free range”, a term that has lost all meaning.
I, for one, do not want this to happen with gluten free labelling. A loophole in gluten free labelling means that people get sick, end of the story. Domino’s is a multinational corporation that is worried about their bottom line, so I don’t owe them props for “trying”.