Does gluten-free trump vegan?

Every now and then someone tweets some stuff that stays with me. Twitter user Lykara Ryder did that last month in a series of seven 140-character messages that were provocative, controversial and thought-provoking – and therefore excellent, because strong opinions are what I think we need to drive debate. I’ve posted them below in their original form, and trust she won’t mind my doing so (click on image to open). 

lykararI disagreed with quite a bit at the time, and after more consideration I still do – for instance, vegan food can be cheerfully cheap – think beans, barley, root vegetables, rice – and the expensive ingredients in your supermarket these days are largely non-vegan – cheese, meats, fish. That said, I’m more interested in one of her other points: “Vegetarian / vegan food doesn’t belong in the ‘free from’ section …”

There is, unarguably, an overlap between vegan food and food for those with certain food sensitivities. Vegan food should be suitable for those with dairy or egg allergies, and some vegetarian food may be too. While it may sell itself as vegan or veggie, perhaps using ‘V’ or animal-friendly symbols, what is vegan if it is not ‘free from’ animal products? Surely by virtue of being ‘free from’ meat, fish and possibly dairy, eggs and honey, veggie or vegan food has every reason to be there?

Lykara seems to be expressing the view that the ‘free from’ aisle should be reserved only for foods for those diagnosed with a medical disease or condition. I could be wrong, but I suspect a lot of people to whom this applies would quite like the ‘free from’ aisle or section to lose any lingering association it has with ‘special diets’ or ‘illness’, so that they feel ‘normal’ and not a ‘special shopper’ in any way – after all, they use the rest of the supermarket along with ‘regular’ customers too.

A lot of commentators and bloggers in ‘free from’ remark about the high cost of many products. Keep the ‘free from’ aisle exclusive, and you’re working to maintain the status quo; open it up to vegans, veggies – and indeed those with religious sensibilities, the healthy-eating / healthy-lifestyle brigade and the plain curious – and you increase its potential for growth, and for innovation, and competition and reduced prices.

Is it about choice?
I know a lot of coeliacs, and follow a fair few on social media. A recurring grumble is outlets who cater for vegetarian diets, but not for gluten free ones. “But vegetarianism is a choice,” goes the complaint, quite often. “I have no choice but to be gluten free.” Underlying this appears to be the feeling that, somehow, they deserve some priority in the pecking order over the veggies: ‘If you’re going to cater for special diets, cater for those who need them first – and then cater for those who want them.’ Resistance towards vegan and veggie in the ‘free from’ aisle feels like a related grievance, to me.

Around 5% of people are vegetarian and 0.2% are diagnosed coeliacs, so, sometimes, supply and demand and basic economics drives the market – but with 8% of the population now buying into the GF market, I expect this is already in the process of changing.

But anyway, one could argue it’s disrespectful to some who avoid animal products to hold the view that they ‘only’ ‘want’ to do so. For some (most?) sensitive or considerate vegetarians and vegans, the idea or reality of consuming meat makes them feel pretty sick, and I’ve known at least two in my circle who’ve vomitted when inadvertently fed it. I doubt that feels like much of a choice to them. And for some to break a religious obligation would be soul destroying, emotionally and physically distressing. Do we have the right to ‘pull rank’ over what our dietary requirements or preferences are? Besides, when up to a third of coeliacs exercise the choice to not follow the gluten-free diet (studies here and here, but there are others), the ‘we have no choice’ claim might ring a little hollow to some sceptics. Clearly for many the choice between ‘eat what you like’ and ‘eat to make yourself extremely ill’ is no real choice in the practical sense, but how do you apply priority to these sorts of situations in a broader sense? Where do you draw lines and decide who ‘wins’?

No one wins, I say. We have to maintain the stance that all of us have the equal right to put into our mouths and bodies what we would like and need, and avoid putting in what we would not like and not need, and I guess that’s the core reason why I think the ‘free from’ aisle needs to be broad and inclusive and incorporate all reasons, all ingredients, all foods.

I think this will also help increase free-frommers’ awareness of other ‘free from’ requirements too. From time to time, I’m still shocked that some with milder sensitivities don’t realise that nuts (and other allergens) can and do kill. As coeliacs are already appreciating – gluten free is no longer only about them. Coeliacs get this, I think, but lifestyle gluten-avoiders need to get that being publically cavalier with their gluten consumption (eg ordering a GF meal, then going ‘what the hell?’ and plumping for profiteroles for dessert) endangers those for whom it is far more important – and I don’t think they do yet.

Similarly, in all the fanfare we’ve witnessed over the last twelve months concerning the gluten-free pizza bonanza, it’s been very easy to forget those with dairy-free requirements, who have been pretty much ignored. (Who can explain it? Is it so hard to offer a vegan cheese topping?) It’s naturally easy to take a ‘what about me?’ approach to discussions in ‘free from’, but we’re all guilty of forgetting others from time to time, and keeping ‘free from’ more open might help us remember them more.

I do think dairy free will be next on the ‘agenda’, and dairy sensitives, lactose intolerants (including lactose intolerant coeliacs) and vegans can, I reckon, work together if they do want to put pressure to improve their lot – and they’ll be far more effective as a team, not apart …

With increased size comes increased power, but I think that even symbolically keeping ‘free from’ inclusive is worth the effort, just like the recent Allergy and Free From Show demonstrated, sitting alongside the V Delicious show as it did. It just seems to me to be the progressive, social way forward – and the right thing to do.


  1. Stephanie Griffith

    I agree with everything you've said as far as opening up the market to more competition and products. It wasn't so bad when I was just gluten-free, but being dairy AND soy free now too makes the list of dietary options for me pretty slim. I'd like to see more companies make products that are free of all three of those. There are some (possibly more than I know given that I live in a small town with very limited grocery options), but I still have a lot of days where I think, "I do NOT want another salad for lunch…but what else is there?"

    I think the "free from" people who are that way for health reasons feel envious of people who simply choose to not eat a [food type]. We didn't ask for this – they CHOSE it, be it for ethical or religious reasons, and that ISN'T the same as "if I eat this, I'll be sick for days/need to go to the ER." So we ARE different. Not special. But different.

    We're as different from vegans as a man born with no legs would be from someone who just chose not to use their legs.

    I don't want food to divide people. Food has been the one thing that unites people, everywhere, for all of time. Food isn't doing that so well anymore because food has become dangerous for so many people. So it's hard for me to think of a vegan as my equal, because a chicken burrito won't cause actual intestinal damage, or suicidal thoughts (as a flour tortilla does to me). We may eat the same way, but it's naive to say our reasons for doing so are unimportant. They are VERY important. A vegan won't get sick from cross contamination, for example, so if the gluten/soy/dairy/whatever people are seen as being like vegans who have made a choice NOT for illness reasons, the risk of our health issues being trivialized grows larger.

  2. dairyfreebabyandme

    Excellent points Alex. I agree those with converging interests can work together to achieve common aims, however, just as coeliacs can find their need for absolute zero tolerance towards gluten confused by those who have less need to be so scrupulous, the same can also be true of the dairy free.

    So, for example, Vegans seem to be happy to accept products which proclaim 'may contain milk', whereas those who are incredibly sensitive to dairy may not take that risk. Therefore Vegans do not need so much to rely on the Free From aisle.

    In fact I suspect that Vegans may well be consuming much more milk than they realise, as my daughter has reacted to such products more often than not (even ice lollies that supposedly contain 100% fruit juice, but have turned out to indeed contain traces of milk).

    The other problem for the dairy free is that many who are unable to consume milk are also unable to have soya. However, soya is a mainstay to most Vegans in terms of replacing milk products. I think this makes it harder for those sensitive to both milk and soya to find acceptable alternatives, although more are becoming available now.

    I must say, though, I am extremely grateful to the Vegan community, as they have developed many milk alternatives and recipes that are suitable for those with allergies. Without them, I don't think we would have as much range and choice that we do.

  3. sugarpuffish

    Interesting post Alex, so my list of allergies doesn't include gluten but does include dairy & eggs and I've been a non meat eater since I was a teenager (I don't like to say I'm Vegan as I don't follow the diet strictly). All of this means I no longer fit the Free From Section of the supermarket, I'm not being catered for and I end up at the health food store buying Vegan produce. When I think about it the local health food store doesn't have a dedicated free from section, there is no dividing line I just fit in, I'm not made to feel different or special and I like it that way. I don't want to tar everyone with the same brush but there are a number of Coeliacs who think the world now revolves around their allergy. The Free From section may be a step forward for them after years of being left out but for me it's a step backwards. I agree with you Alex, I want everyone to be united we are better in numbers rather than fighting our own corner.

  4. Alex G

    Great comments all of you, thanks.

    You're right of course, Stephanie: the damage to a coeliac from eating gluten is going to be more serious than that of meat to a vegan, and naturally my argument is considerably weaker when you bring cross-contamination into the equation, which I'd not properly considered. But would it not be better to not think 'we're different' and instead focus on the common ground all those following free-from lifestyles have?

    Are vegans really happy to accept 'may contain traces of milk' labelling, DFBAM? I'm not so sure – may do a quick poll on Twitter…! Yes, I imagine dairy traces do get into the food 'chain' quite easily (not unlike gluten) and that even vigilant vegans consume a tiny amount, much in the same way that even ultra-vigilant coeliacs consume a tiny amount of gluten.

    Shame you feel that way towards the free from aisle, Sarah – is it more to do with the products which are (or aren't) there, or the idea of the aisle/section itself? Do you want broader inclusive choice, as I argue, or a wider range of products redistributed throughout the store so there's no 'different' or special section?

  5. dairyfreebabyandme

    Well, you could be right Alex, I'm just judging by some of the Vegan product review blogs that I follow – Veganoo and Veggies both often include 'may contain…' products. Maybe other Vegans wouldn't be so keen?? Might have to ask Twitter/FB and find out.

  6. Stephanie Griffith

    I don't need common ground with vegans though. Or vegetarians. Or anyone else on any other kind of "diet." I just want to go to the store and find food that I can safely eat because the company making it understands the importance of making a TRULY gluten/dairy/soy free product.

    People with food allergies/sensitivities are different from people who do not have them. There is just no way around it. EVERYONE is different in some way from everyone else. Being GF or DF or SF or whatever-F, means that you spend a vast amount of your life thinking about what you can eat, and where you can eat, whether you want to or not.

    There is no one else who is forced to do that except people who do so for health reasons. Vegans/vegetarians/etc. are not forced into those diets. And I don't want to be lumped in with them, because I'm NOT them. I would really love a burrito. Not a "sort of" burrito made from a corn tortilla that falls apart. I want a burrito with a fluffy flour tortilla, sour cream, cheese, etc., but that isn't going to happen. A vegan could drive to Taco Bell and get one if they wanted to (going against your morals is not the same as going against your health).

    A vegan can find food anywhere, because his/her dietary decisions are not made from health, but from morals. Gluten free people can, have, and will be faced with times in which if they do not bring food, they CAN'T EAT. That's scary, and that's a huge deal.

    That makes us different, and I don't see why that's a bad thing.

  7. sugarpuffish

    Being that I live half in the Vegan world & half in FreeFrom on my social media the topic of "may contain" is widely debated by Vegans it's important to some and not others.

  8. sugarpuffish

    Alex you asked me some good questions and now I'm a little confused what I want lol. Only the other day Food Heaven, the DF cheesecake people, said that their product was being stocked with the dairy desserts. That surprised be at first but then I thought why did it provoke that reaction? I wonder if we don't have dedicated section of the store will that open up more shelf space as the FF. Looking at the FF aisle, maybe it's my stores but I'm only seeing Gluten free products and I'd like to see a wider selection of products catering for everyone and if Vegan is in that then so be it because then I can find more egg free items.

  9. sugarpuffish

    Vegans can't find food everywhere, they fight for inclusion as much as FreeFrom people, Vegetarianism is more widely accepted. I eat a mainly GF diet because I am forced to, so how is that fair? it's second nature that a dairy/egg free product will be gluten free because manufacturers will try to keep their markets open to many.

  10. The Hungry Boyfriend

    I don't think we should even have 'free from' aisles any more. I think we just need a better, clearer labelling system. It frustrates me that there's products that you find in the 'free from' aisles that would be normally gluten free anyway… And where do you stop putting things in a 'free from' aisle. Say I want a dip to go with some crisps. Reading the labels the vast majority of dips are gluten free but they're not in the gluten free aisle. With the crisps there's probably a 50/50 split but again I find these in the crisps aisles not the gluten free one. It seems like the free from aisle is reserved for those brands who want to package their products as 'free from'. If labelling was better and more clearer and more consistent I wouldn't object to my gluten free soy sauce being next to the 'normal' soy sauce. I think for newly diagnosed coeliacs, they head straight to the free from aisle and think that's what they're limited to which is misleading. Equally supermarkets should be using technology to help consumers. Why can't I enter in to my self scan that I'm gluten free and I get a warning every time I scan something containing gluten? Just an idea…

  11. Caleigh

    I have to say, I fully agree with Lykara's second comment, "The Venn diagram of 'Things I Eat' and 'Things That Aren't Your Business' is a perfect circle." As a Crohn's/Coeliac person, too, I spend most of my time justifying any food I reject, "Yes, I know it's gluten free, but my Crohn's Disease doesn't like it." However, I don't think we should start some kind of free from hierarchy.

    Whether you abstain from certain foods for medical, cultural, religious or economic reasons, you should be respected for it. It's hard work to cut items from your diet and I, for one, can't do it unless the doctor tells me to! If a person has enough conviction to restrict their diet for reasons other than medical, I think they should be applauded, not chastised! Despite the massive progress in free from foods in recent years, we still have a long way to go. I don't think it's helpful for us to fight amongst ourselves about who has the most relevant/significant/important special diet.

    I do relate to Lykara, though. I get frustrated at being questioned about my dietary choices, especially by those my-diet-works-for-me-so-it-will-definitely-work-for-you-too militant types of people, and can't help but get irritated at times. When you have dietary restrictions, it seems like everyone else thinks they're an expert on your situation and that get tiring. It's enough to send anyone to Twitter for a bit of a rant!

  12. Alex G

    Interesting … Perhaps the natural progression of the free from aisle will be that it keeps growing until it gets so large, it swallows up the entire supermarket. Everything will have become 'free from' or at least convey a 'free from' message of some kind – resulting in perhaps the kind of improved labelling you'd like? GF and G-containing soy sauce alongside on the shelf is fine – but what about GF flour and wheaten flour? I like the self-scan idea!

  13. Alex G

    Yeah, during a long period of vegetarianism, I was regularly questioned about rejecting ham / pork when in Italy, so can imagine it driving anyone potty when it's permanent, and indeed more serious. Twitter rants are often good in my book! – and I should point out that I did tweet Lykara as soon as she posted to tell her how much I found her tweets interesting, and that I would blog on them at a later date. Hope she comes along to comment at some point …

  14. Alex G

    Do you really feel it would be being "lumped in" with vegans? I'm not suggesting food sensitives should lose their identity in any way – just that the free from community becomes more inclusive and comes together, so that education concerning one another's requirements is encouraged and spreads, and so that the free from community becomes more powerful, and so that the market grows and prices reduce.

    From what you say, the only purported benefit from maintaining a more separatist stance is the one you outline here:

    "A vegan won't get sick from cross contamination, for example, so if the gluten/soy/dairy/whatever people are seen as being like vegans who have made a choice NOT for illness reasons, the risk of our health issues being trivialized grows larger…"

    … but why does it have to work that way around? Why should food sensitives be seen as vegans – for whom x-contamination may matter less – and instead why can't vegans be seen as food sensitives, for whom cross-contamination is a major health issue? Why should standards and perceptions fall and not improve?

    It feels as if you're imagning the worse scenario, not the potentially better one…


    I recalled this post at a barbecue yesterday. The (vegetarian) hosts had mad an incredible effort to cater for my (gluten free) diet as well as for 2 vegans in attendance – separate grills, utensils and even cakes for us special dieters. That kind of inclusivity was heart warming, and I wish more people (not to mention businesses) we are considerate; but when we got to desserts and one of the vegans knowingly tucked into the (egg and dairy containing) chocolate cake; it epitomised for me the problem many allergic/intolerant people have with people who adhere to special diets for moral or lifestyle reasons. We're probably a little jealous they have a choice, but mostly we're annoyed that they sometimes trivialise the diet by occasionally abandoning it – causing confusion for caterers who in the future may not take a special diet quite so seriously. (Not to mention in this case it was pretty rude considering the effort the hosts had gone to!)

    Of course there are many vegans etc. who take their diet considerably more seriously than this person; and of course some coeliacs who don't take their gluten free diets as seriously as I do, especially if they are asymptomatic – so I think my issue is more with people who are inconsistent rather than with the reason people follow a diet – it causes a lack of understanding of how to cater for special diets and problems for those of use who really need special care and attention to issues like cross contamination.

  16. Pingback: Why 'Vegan' is not always 'Dairy Free' | Allergy Insight

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