This morning, on ‘This Morning’, I witnessed one of the most outlandish takes on a situation involving a gluten-free person I could imagine hearing on live TV.
The segment involved Vanessa Feltz advising callers on their Christmas dilemmas, with one particular caller wanting to know:
‘How to deal with a family Christmas where we all need to eat gluten-free for one person who’s got Coeliac disease’. The segment was captioned on screen ‘I’m being forced to have a gluten-free Christmas’You can watch the full segment above.
It contained all of your favourite gluten-free stereotypes such as ‘gluten-free people are just being difficult’, ‘Coeliac disease doesn’t need to be taken that seriously – it won’t kill you’ and another classic: ‘gluten-free food isn’t nice’.
From the get-go, Vanessa essentially treats the situation as though the ‘one person’ (the caller’s gluten-free mother-in-law) has demanded all the family eat their way as a means of unreasonable selfishness. This would be a valid take if the mother-in-law had demanded the family all eat that way for a bit of sadistic festive fun, but following a gluten-free diet due to Coeliac disease isn’t a choice. So if the caller’s mother-in-law is hosting a gluten-free Christmas and has asked her guests to politely abide by it – because, for example, cross-contamination might be very hard to manage in a small kitchen when cooking a lot of food – is any part of that unreasonable? According to Vanessa, it is!
Yet, whilst continuing as though cross-contamination isn’t a thing, Vanessa immediately plays down the importance of Coeliac disease by saying: ‘she’s treating Coeliac disease as if it’s a potentially fatal peanut allergy.’ So… just because you won’t experience instantaneous death from consuming gluten, a diligent approach to cross-contamination management is suddenly seen as being overly dramatic? Vanessa then goes on to state ‘it’s not catching’ as though because Coeliac disease isn’t contagious, there’s no need to take it this seriously… but a peanut allergy, as she just mentioned, isn’t contagious either. Personally, I think the idea of comparing an allergy to an autoimmune condition is totally bonkers, but then again, I think the same thing about comparing all medical conditions in a ‘which is worse?’ way, fullstop.
But one of the biggest things that really wound me up (which is never explicitly said) is that the entire conversation is based on a common misconception: gluten-free food is always going to be worse than regular food. Isn’t it funny how though this isn’t explicitly mentioned at any point, the entire segment lives and breathes through this idea?
I see this misconception as a foundation of this conversation, otherwise:
- a) why does the caller even care if the food is gluten-free or not? why does she suggest leaving before the food is served?
- b) why does Vanessa take such an issue with all the food being gluten-free without once questioning what the food actually is?
- c) why does the caller’s ‘fussy’ 15 year old son take such an issue with gluten-free food in particular?
The answer here is that, because there’s an assumption that the food is either going to be worse, more restrictive or not delectable, the caller’s 15 year old son is going to instantly turn his nose up at it before he even sees it. After all, if there was an assumption that all the gluten-free food was going to be just as good as, or maybe even better than ‘regular’ food, there wouldn’t even be a problem to start with.
The other thing I take issue with amongst the foundations of this conversation is that there’s a lack of knowledge here that lots of Christmas food is naturally gluten-free. Think about the main meal… the majority is or can easily be made gluten-free without any change in visuals, taste, texture etc. Even desserts and party food are all very easy to get/make gluten-free if they aren’t already – my supermarket guides this year and recipe books show this – and a lot of the Christmas party food products found in the regular aisles are gluten-free anyway… tons of people buy them and don’t even realise. Yet one of the first things that Vanessa says is that the idea of everyone eating gluten-free food at Christmas is ‘absolutely ridiculous’, instead of reassuring the caller of any of this.
When the caller is asked by Vanessa how her mother-in-law would respond to the idea of bringing gluten-containing food over for her ‘fussy’ 15 year old son instead, the caller says the mother-in-law would: ‘tell me that I’m ignorant to the facts and tell me to read up on it‘. Vanessa responds: ‘you’re not (ignorant) and she’s wrong‘.
I hate to be ‘that person’, but if the caller doesn’t understand the reasons why the mother-in-law isn’t allowing gluten-containing food to be brought over for Christmas, then the caller might actually be ignorant (or unaware, to put it more politely!) and should probably read up on it to understand why. It can’t just be the person with Coeliac disease who understands cross-contamination and therefore has a responsibility to educate the rest of the world – it needs to be a team effort to keep those with Coeliac disease safe. For example, if others don’t understand cross-contamination and use the same spoons for gluten-containing food and gluten-free food, then it doesn’t matter how safe we try to be. In addition to this lack of awareness, the whole ‘bringing gluten-containing food over for the son’ situation is treated as though his food wouldn’t need to be heated up alongside or near gluten-free food too.
In the latter part of the segment, Vanessa says stuff like:
- Maybe the caller should just ‘put up with it just for the sake of peace and harmony’ – gosh, abiding by other people’s dietary requirements for a few hours is a pain isn’t it? Imagine if you had to be gluten-free every day for the rest of your life? 🙄
- She calls the gluten-free host a ‘rather difficult mother-in-law’ and reiterates that she’s ‘completely wrong’ – yet again portraying a stereotype that gluten-free people are just being difficult for the sake of it
- She tells the caller to ‘have a snack on the way there’ and to ‘bring something to eat in the car on the way home’ – as though the gluten-free food will be disgusting and inedible (as I’ve already talked about) without even knowing what is, then recommends they ‘don’t stay too long’. I’d better recall all the copies of my Christmas recipe book then!
Needless to say, I feel like Josie’s face sums up everything that was just said in rapid succession:
Thankfully, providing some clarity to the madness that just ensued, Josie asks Vanessa: ‘they can’t have any cross-contamination if they’re Coeliac though, can they?’ An amazing point to bring up, but unfortunately, Josie was asking the wrong person. Vanessa again downplays the need for cross-contamination when referring to the gluten-free mother-in-law: ‘they don’t have to have cross-contamination, especially if they bring their own food from home in a snack box’, which as I said earlier, could only be a valid suggestion if we assume that this food is going to be eaten cold from said snack box… which I’m sure isn’t the case.
Craig mentions at the end how ‘your mother-in-law is going to be terrified that if she does mistakenly take something and is ill, it’s going to ruin the whole day for everyone’. Too right she is! The symptoms can start straight away and the longer term damage is real, so that’s a really good point from Craig there.
I have nothing against Vanessa personally obviously – she just clearly doesn’t understand the practicalities of preparing gluten-free food and cross-contamination – so I don’t think it’s at all helpful for her to be commenting on things like this. In such a short segment, she manages to frame us as all the things people always misjudge us as; because as Craig highlighted, we aren’t ever trying to be selfish, difficult or unreasonable! No, being gluten-free isn’t a choice and because of that, we don’t try to make things awkward on purpose… implying we do these things without good reason just reinforces opinions that gluten-free people are problematic.
Overall, I’m just pretty tired of gluten-free people, gluten-free food and Coeliac disease being constantly misrepresented in the public eye. Either we’re portrayed as though being gluten-free is a fad (happened on Bake Off not that long ago), that we’re difficult, that our food isn’t fit for a ‘normal’ person, cross-contamination is optional or that Coeliac Disease isn’t something to be taken seriously. As a Coeliac UK ambassador, I’m constantly trying – not just to support gluten-free people and help them feel ‘normal’ again – but to ensure the rest of the world knows we exist and that we need to be catered for. And needless to say, what I witnessed on This Morning today really doesn’t help!
For final context, here’s a short story: I once visited a gluten-free bakery in Barcelona that had a zero tolerance policy on customers bringing gluten into the premises. When I visited, I walked in carrying a pizza box with a gluten-free pizza inside (what do you mean you’re not surprised?). I was immediately stopped at the door and they asked if the food I was bringing in was gluten-free or not – I reassured them it was and that was that – I went in. I’m sure you know the reasons why they have this policy… it’s to prevent cross-contamination.
Now, if someone walked into that bakery with a gluten-containing pizza and they were told they weren’t allowed to enter with it, would that then make the bakery unreasonable? After all, as Vanessa would say: ‘it’s not catching’! It’s not unreasonable at all in my mind whether you understand the need for cross-contamination management or not; that’s the pre-set policy they have for their bakery and if you want to go into their bakery, you simply respect their wishes. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in someone else’s place, I try to respect their wishes as best I can – especially when it’s for a justifiable reason that they can’t control!
We are seeing improvements and more understanding than we once did have, but attitudes like this being displayed on mainstream national media show there is still a huge way to go and that, like Vanessa, many people still probably feel this way about gluten-free. And if you want to see me on ‘This Morning’ so that I can set the record straight then it’s simple – just message them and ask! I’ve been so grateful to be cooking on TV (on Steph’s Packed Lunch) throughout in 2023 showing everyone that gluten-free food can be delicious, simple and easy and something all the family will enjoy. I hope that with more positive representation about gluten-free in mainstream media and a little friendly educating, crazy spiels like the one I witnessed today will eventually become a thing of the past.
My hope is that we can change things for the better for all Coeliacs and for those, like me, who remain undiagnosed. You can view Coeliac UK’s response to the segment on This Morning here.
UPDATE 19/12/23! This Morning since aired this segment the following day: