Gluten: Some people don’t eat it. Other people make fun of those people, deriding their gluten “allergies” and “intolerance” as little more than fad diets couched in medical ambiguity. That chick in your spin class is lying! Right?! To separate the wheat (scientific fact!) from the chaff (people who are just avoiding carbs!), I called up Laura, a registered dietician, to grill her on if/when I should call out an erroneous abstainer, and when I should back off in deference to medical fact. Because, you know, I'm petty.
“The big ticket items include: flours, bread products, pasta, cereals, cakes, cookies, [and] anything ‘breaded’,” but “because gluten helps hold things together, it’s ‘hidden’ in items you wouldn’t naturally think of.” That can be anything from soy sauce to Play-Doh to weird synthetic foods like imitation duck.
Gluten in these products is “completely different due to the processing”, and way harder for even a normal person’s gut to break down, explains Laura. If the idea of fake bird “meat” smuggling mutant protein into your intestine isn’t gross enough, here’s a picture. Pretty fowl, amirite?!
Enough of that. Who can I make fun of?
Laura says there are many reasons you shouldn’t clown on disciples of the gluten-free gospel. Some are social (“it’s not nice”, “mind your own goddamned business”, etc.), but most of them are medical. @meganamram Gluten-free. — Yale Stewart (@YaleStewart) January 22, 2014 That said, you wouldn't want to pity anyone who doesn't deserve it, would you? God, I hope not. So I had Laura categorize each strain of gluten-avoiders based on how medically sound their claims are. GLUTEN-INTOLERANT: “Gluten intolerance is the umbrella term for issues [like] Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity,” explains Laura. This person may be trying to spare you the specifics of their medical issues, or trying to take advantage of your ignorance. Distinguish yourself from fake/self-diagnosed grain-skippers Verdict: Impossible to tell. You'll need more information. Proceed with bread products and extreme caution.
CELIAC DISEASE: Of all the lobbyists fighting Big G, Celiac patients deserve the most respect. Without getting too Doogie Howser on it, this affliction restricts the small intestine’s ability to break down croissants and stuff. And lord, is it an affliction.
"Although they [may crave] a pizza slice or biscuits & gravy, they pay the price hours later when they’re writhing in pain. They have time to think about the consequences of their actions, just waiting for them to come."
Verdict: Don't make fun -- this is a serious disease. Laura points out that you may never even know you're dining with a Celiac-er, because they keep it to themselves. "They don’t want your pity party... that just makes it worse."
WHEAT ALLERGY: "Depending on who you talk to, the gluten ‘allergy’ doesn’t exist," says Laura. The medical community (mostly) agrees. But allergic reactions to other wheat components are common, so if someone is avoiding certain breads & pastas, this might be the reason. Many wheat-allergic people, undermined by the recent gluten-free craze, are careful to distinguish themselves from fake/self-diagnosed grain-skippers.
Verdict: It's the real deal. Dietician talk: "A person will be on the floor two seconds after eating some wheat because his/her throat is closing in response. It will be very clear within minutes that something is terribly wrong." Also: don't be thrown if they're eating barley & rye breads -- the allergy only applies to wheat products.
The gluten-free debate "goes to show that there's not enough research to back up half the stuff we believe/practice," opines Laura. "Not to mention, it’s extremely difficult to isolate the exact cause of" a health problem. "I say, 'Hey, if you think you’ve got issues with gluten, you might as well attempt to get rid of it in your diet -- with the guidance of a doctor and dietician, of course.'"
But back to the ridicule!: When someone tells Laura they're gluten sensitive "[her] thoughts are, 'Ehhhhh... who told you that? Was it your yoga teacher?'" Even dieticians have reservations about the gluten-free mania -- but no one disputes Celiac disease & wheat allergies, so don't go there.
Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist food & drink. He’s very thankful to be able to eat pasta. Follow him on Twitter: @dinfontay.