Jamie Magazine, Spelt and Gluten Free: a cautionary tale

The team behind Jamie Magazine are not the first people to err on the gluten-containing status of spelt, and neither will they be the last. Issue 27 contains four recipes which make use of the flour of triticum spelta and which are described as gluten free. The apology for the mistake is here.

Reactions to this have been mixed. I tweeted last week in request of thoughts and views while I was trying to formulate my own. Many responders were annoyed.

Maria, while acknowledging she herself was initially confused regarding spelt, said she “would have thought the Oliver empire would know better”.

“What can I say?” said Jane of Food for Celiacs. “This is how all us coeliacs are treated. People think they know what we can eat – but do they?”

Sian, of the excellent Gluten Free Mrs D blog, chose strong words. She called it ‘shocking’ and ‘terrible’, adding: “Why did they not double check? I feel sorry for any coeliacs out there who have a print copy and don’t have access to social media to see the apology. There will be people getting ill from eating spelt, thinking it’s gluten free.”

“Dreadful,” agreed Louise of the Good Food, Great Fun and GF Blog. “I can imagine some kind cooks making the recipes for gluten avoiding pals and not realising.”

All valid points and understandable strong feeling underlying them. Others, though, were more sympathetic. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness acknowledged it would cause confusion, but praised the prompt correction.

Matthew of the Hungry Boyfriend blog agreed magazines had to be more careful. “But mistakes happen and the fact that they are trying to write gluten-free recipes is a positive step,” he added. “Being too harsh will mean they stay clear of allergen recipes.”

“Got to be a good thing that they are trying,” agreed Alexa at the YesNoBananas blog. “An unfortunate error but well-intentioned apology. We should keep them on-side so they try other allergen-free stuff in future.”

Terms and terminology

Alexa touched on an additional issue concerning the widespread confusion and lack of understanding regarding the language of food hypersensitivities: about the difference between coeliac and wheat allergy, for instance, and what grains such as spelt and buckwheat actually are – indeed, one may be a glutenous grain and one not, but name-based intuitive guesswork will lead the uninformed to the wrong answer.

I think the issue of terminology is key, as it often is when it comes this subject. I’ve just written an article for FoodsMatter.com about a proposed standardisation of coeliac and gluten-related terms which, although not earth shattering in itself, did highlight to me the huge problem that even experts have had in setting out precisely what certain words and expressions should mean and whether or not they should be used and, if so, in what context…

In a nutshell, a group of scientists reviewed published papers in the field of gluten-related disorders – medical papers written by experts, remember – and found that many terms were used inconsistently. Perhaps the most notable were ‘gluten sensitivity’ and ‘gluten intolerance’, both often used synonymously with coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten intolerance – two different conditions – on a regular basis.

This has echoes of the more popular confusion regularly played out online and in newspaper and magazine articles regarding the terms food intolerance and food allergy – although I’m not entirely sure we even have an agreed-upon or ‘safe’ definition of what food intolerance is or even whether it should be regarded as one condition.

Although not to excuse anyone who gets things wrong, especially those asking to be trusted or in a position of influence, but given all the above it’s hardly surprising that mistakes are made and people get into a muddle.

I can’t see it catching on, but I wonder whether it would help to start referring to spelt as ‘spelt wheat’, which is precise and correct. It’s a losing battle, I guess, because it’s a word too long, and because those who are marketing spelt or products derived from spelt tend to do so by putting emphasis on its unwheatlike qualities (easier digestibility etc) and don’t always mention the w-word in relation to their wares, perhaps in order to pass them off as something more distinct than they actually are. This enforced separation of the two sibling grains – ie spelt wheat and common wheat – may please the “lifestyle gluten-avoiders”, as GF Beer Expert Sue Cane calls them, but, as she also suggested to me, may put coeliacs at risk because of lack of education and understanding in restaurants. And, in light of what’s just happened, it could be speculated, in magazines too…

Because make no mistake: spelt is a form of wheat. There are too many references to it being ‘wheat free’ across the web, and even in some otherwise apparently very good sources of information, products and reading – see here, here and here, for example. Saying spelt is wheat free feels to me like saying goat’s milk is milk free: surely it only confuses?

Spelt is often spoken about in ‘lower gluten’ terms and this too can be problematic, as true as it no doubt is. Here’s an Irish spelt bread firm, making a ‘low gluten’ claim on the label of its products, no longer permissable, unless I’m mistaken, under new labelling regulations.

You are, I hope, beginning to see the problem. And I’ve only scratched the surface, I suspect.

Words from the editor…
Anyway, back to Jamie Magazine. I wrote to them with my concerns and some of the above Tweeters’ remarks, and Andy Harris, the editor, has sent a full and sincere response, the gist of which I’ll outline.

Andy told me he and the team wanted to run a baking feature for people with specialist dietary requirements but they got caught up in some labelling issues and a fact-checking error was made, one which wasn’t picked up in the second round of proofing due to tight production deadlines. (I have many years’ former experience of this environment at magazines, and the pressure and time constraints involved can be immense.)

A lot has been and is being done to put things right:

* A correction and apology on the website;
* Ditto in the next edition of the magazine;
* Recipes amended in the JM database;
* Letters sent to 15,000 subscribers (40% of those receiving the magazine);
* Prompt response to complaints and queries – like mine…

Andy asked me what else I thought could be done, and I made some suggestions. I’ll keep you posted and update this blog if anything further comes of those ideas, but feel free to add yours below, as I’ll tell the team about this post.

They clearly feel bad – ‘awful’ and ‘mortified’, in Andy’s words – and I’m glad to report that they remain committed to running specialist-diet features in future, albeit with more care.

We all mess up. I’ve made a fair few mistakes (misspelling ‘coeliac’ throughout a chapter of my first book, seven years ago, springs to mind as I write – thankfully picked up by my proofreader), and I’ve blogged before about the reluctance of some to hold up their hands and admit to errors. Should we not give credit when people do?

So, although I suspect some may be mad at me, I vote we cut them some slack. Jamie Magazine’s team is trying to do a lot to put things right and I believe there’s genuine remorse and upset there. Diet-wise we are in a bloody mess in this country and any publication trying to champion good food and cookery should surely be supported, as much as possible.

Can we really demand apologies and be unforgiving when they arrive?

As always, I very much look forward to your thoughts.

8 Comments

  1. gluten-free[k]

    Jamie Magazine aren't the first to make this mistake, and I'm sure they won't be the last. Well done to them for taking such swift action and doing what they could to rectify the situation. I think we should move past the mistake and applaud the effort.

    (Perhaps in future, they should seek guidance from some of the many Coeliac recipe bloggers out there..?)

    I'm sure that this has been a steep learning curve for the team at Jamie Magazine and I hope it doesn't stop them from continuing to publish recipes aimed at those of us with food allergies and intolerances.

    Reply
  2. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    Here, here – to both Alex and Gluten-free[k]. Of course everyone should check their facts before going to print but we live in the real world of tight deadlines and shaved corners so mistakes do, sadly, get made. But full marks to the Jamie team for rectifying the damage as comprehensibly and sincerely as they obviously have.

    And there may be some good fallout – it has certainly raised the profile of those on any of the many shades of wheat/gluten free diets, and the problems they face over terminology, both with the team and with anyone else who has been caught up in the event. And the magazine seems keen to continue running 'special' diet features, albeit more carefully checked – so that is also good.

    Hopefully, no permanent damage was done to anyone who read or used the recipes but, it does point up yet again that, no matter how hard everyone else may try, the final responsibility for what they eat rests with the individual. If you have a problem with a food or an ingredient then it is you who needs to understand all about it (and all guises under which it may appear) so that you are always in a position to make an informed decision as to whether the food is safe for you to eat or not.

    Reply
  3. Maria B

    I agree that we can't demand an apology & then be unforgiving when it arrives! It was an error albeit a bad one, but as you say we've all been there & can't turn back time.

    The magazine have shown they're truly sorry by the way they've issued the apology and even asking what else can be done shows a genuine concern and regret. We don't want this to be part of a backlash that stops other publications being too wary to write about being Gluten /Wheat free what we want is more exposure not less. Mistakes or not it's good to get it out there.

    I am sure Jamie's will be extra careful with the next GF feature and maybe even do a bigger one if we say thank you for the apology and move on…. what do you think?

    Reply
  4. Alex G

    Thanks all of you for comments.

    I should have made clear that my initial feelings would not have looked out of place alongside those of Sian and others who were more upset at this – it's fair to say I was exasperated, to put it mildly – but yes I do agree that they've handled it well.

    And yes, also agree with Michelle's very important point that the ultimate responsibility for what goes into your mouth must be yours – but how that applies when you're eating out is another matter. It's one thing checking with your trusted and honest friend who's cooked you some recipe from Jamie Magazine, and quite another checking with a harried waitress in a busy restaurant who is less interested in your rashes or rebellious tummy than a loved one…

    Reply
  5. Glutenfreewheel

    Agreed. It's a casualty of 'churnalism'. Reminded me a lot of this brilliant article in the New York Times : http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/dining/i-was-a-cookbook-ghostwriter.html Hopefully we coeliacs are immersed in our world enough not be fooled by such oversights.

    Reply
  6. Siân

    Alex, I agree with you and the other comments above that their apology was swift, sincere and as far reaching as possible and we should move on from this. Although it should be noted the apology would not reach those without access to social media/internet or who have bought/been sent the gluten free feature following a one off purchase of the magazine specifically for the gluten free article. I agree very much with Michelle about personal responsibility for what we consume, whether we’re eating out and putting our trust in a restaurant kitchen or cooking at home from a recipe. For people with food sensitivities, the buck does stop with us for managing our health and as individuals we need to be vigilant to prevent ourselves from becoming ill.

    In reply to the comments made on Twitter at the time which are quoted above, I think I should clarify that my frustration was about how and why the magazine’s processes failed and the impact this mistake may have on others. The editor has said the second level of checking didn’t pick up the error when it should have done. Irrespective of the final tight deadline, my amazement was how and why it can be in the possibly weeks/months long recipe planning and development process – from the person standing in the test kitchen holding a bag of spelt flour to the editor reviewing final copy – was it not accurately confirmed that spelt is not gluten free. But that’s what happened.

    I agree that everybody makes mistakes and think it’s great that an apology was swiftly and sincerely issued….For me the point is that it’s what you do next that counts. If that means Jamie magazine do a large feature on cooking for special diets with the correct information or if Jamie Oliver covers cooking for special diets in one of his TV programmes, then that will be a positive outcome from this.

    Reply
  7. Alex G

    @ glutenfreewheel – thanks for comment. Perhaps I've not considered this from the journalistic perspective sufficiently. Do you mean that a consequence of churnalism (eg publications cutting staff because they can get away with relying on PR puffery etc), is to increase likelihood of mistakes slipping through? It's a reasonable point, but think that applies more to papers than mags. And these were original recipes, I'm pretty sure, not PR-supplied.

    @ Sian – Thanks for another generous and thoughtful contribution to the debate. Yes, when you put it like that, there should have been ample opportunities for it to have been picked up, but it's impossible to know every stage of the process, and I guess only the editorial team can know that. And agreed – a Jamie TV series on special diets. That'd be an outcome all right!

    Reply
  8. Glutenfreewheel

    I think of 'churnalism' as generating large amounts of content (words or in this case recipes) to a deadline that doesn't allow for full consideration of the subject.

    Magazine writers can be individually responsible for 1,000's of words per issue. A friend of mine clocked over 9000 words for one issue of a prominent factual UK mag (also a spin-off from a TV programme) last year in a field he's not an expert in. I recently wrote 26 articles for the one issue of a factual magazine before bowing out. I consider both myself and my friend as thorough fact-checkers but it's easy to see how the scale and speed of output required by writers can tip the integrity.

    Magazines are hungry for quick, cheap content and are often more concerned with ads (or ads for the products in the editorial or 'advertorials') than editorial. Factual articles are wonderful when the research is thorough, but all too often I suspect it's not.

    It is also disheartening that these recipes had to pass at least two people (writer/editor) who are presumably educated about food. What hope do we have entrusting our entrails to cafes/restaurants if people who work with food think they know what gluten free is but don't.

    Hopefully the mistake has made people more likely to double check ingredients.

    Reply

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