That’s (Gluten Free) Life

I was taken aback by an article by Esther Rantzen which appears in the current Waitrose Weekend magazine, and which you can read here.

Rantzen has spoken about her daughter’s health before, and I have blogged about it briefly, but this latest piece sets us a small step back in trying to boost understanding of food sensitivities.

The head is ‘My coeliac daughter’. We’ve been here before, but there is no confirmation that Rantzen’s daughter has had blood tests and a biopsy to confirm coeliac disease – the recommended route to diagnosis. In fact, we know from a recent interview in Coeliac UK’s Crossed Grain magazine with her mother that Emily Rantzen has declined to do this (fair enough, of course). Further, the sell in the Waitrose article says that ‘a chance detox uncovered a secret that challenged [Rantzen’s] attitude to allergies’.

Where to start. Is it worth mentioning that coeliac isn’t an allergy but autoimmune? We’ll let it pass (though others wouldn’t – and I’ll come back to this one another day).

Second point: detoxes do not enable diagnoses of any kind of food sensitivity, and Rantzen’s daughter’s exclusion of porridge (an extremely healthful food, unless you’re a coeliac who cannot tolerate them) in this context implies that oats are somehow toxifying, when they certainly are not. To paint a detox – a diet widely considered to be faddish and usually unnecessary – in such a positive light is irresponsible.

Rantzen won’t have written the headline or the sell, but Waitrose today confirmed to me that ‘the views in the article are Esther’s own’ – and there is worse in that article. It begins by describing her previous broad disbelief in the existance of food sensitivities, and then she explains how her daughter’s health improved after experimentally following a gluten-free diet, before closing with a comment that suggests she shouldn’t have been so confident in her initial scepticism.

This is fine as far as her previous food sensitivity denialism goes, but is problematic because it drags medicine and doctors, that she mentions in the same breath, down with it. You see, Rantzen rightly slams absurd hair analysis tests on the basis that medicine does not recognise them – “if the doctor doesn’t believe it, neither will I” – and then proceeds to use her daughter’s experience to call her initial correct assessments into question.

I do believe Rantzen means well, and is keen to raise awareness of gluten-related disorders (but am I the only one who would occasionally like to hear from her daughter rather than always her?). I also believe that Waitrose Weekend thought they were doing a good thing featuring this piece, in the context of Coeliac Awareness Week, the first day of which is today.

But this does not alter the fact that this is a misleading and careless article, from which it could so easily be inferred that hair tests have validity, that self-diagnosis of any kind is not necessarily something to be avoided, and that detoxing is some sort of viable alternative to standard coeliac testing.

At this stage, my understanding is that Coeliac UK were not involved in this particular piece, and I’m not sure about Rantzen’s ongoing involvement with the charity, but if this relationship does still exist and is to continue, then she needs to be briefed, and very carefully. Further, I know how short-staffed and pressured editorial departments can be, trust me, but, somehow, greater time to proof articles on medical subjects written by non-medical individuals must be found.

Perhaps, on the basis that this article coincides with Awareness Week, it will do more good than bad, ultimately, for the coeliac cause. I hope so.

But having buggered up at 9am this morning on my gluten-free challenge by thoughtlessly pouring oat milk into my coffee – due I think to complacency stemming from a successful week last year – I am feeling remarkably grumpy (not to mention foolish).

So I’ll close with this: we’re still muddying the waters as far as the wider issue of all food sensitivities is concerned, and this article only darkens it further. It may be about coeliac this week – but it’s about all the intolerances and allergies out there as well for the other 51.

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