Three days at the Allergy and Gluten Free Show: a few thoughts

I am in the process of recovering from the Allergy and Gluten Free Show, where I worked for three days at the Free From Food Awards stand, promoting both – as well as the spin-off site, Skins Matter, of which I’m deputy editor. Michelle (the owner and founder) and I, it’s fair to say, had fun, and while we succeeded in getting hundreds of signatories to our free Foods Matter / Skins Matter newsletter, in showcasing some of the winners of the Awards, and in tasting some delicious ‘free from’ products, we were also reminded of a number of more serious matters too.

I’ll quickly deal with the food first. I tasted nowhere near as much as I’d have liked, but very much enjoyed the M&S’s GF rich fruit cake, The Cake Crusader’s carrot cake, Steph’s GF Battenburg, Estrella Damm’s beer and G Free / Baked to Taste’s goat’s cheese and caramelised onion tart. There were a number of unfamiliar companies exhibiting, including Joss and Fria, which may become more familiar to us over the coming twelve months.

Let’s move on. In my role as a health journalist, I often attend exhibitions and shows as a visitor and so it was an eye-opener for me to attend as, effectively, an exhibitor. You quickly realise, when you’re on the other side of the fence, that shows of this nature are not about the products being exhibited at all – they’re about the people coming to see them.

I was cheered by the remarkable numbers of nutritionists and dietitians. They took the issues seriously and were out to find information for both themselves and their patients. I applaud the lot of them. Sadly, this only served to magnify the gaping absence of doctors visiting our stand. Unless they didn’t announce themselves, there was only one hero, who happened to be one of the best known in the country – Dr Chris Steele – but more about him later in the week. The dearth of GPs was, I’m afraid, extremely disappointing – especially given the negative stories of unsympathetic and unhelpful doctors that I was told about, one of which is coming up.

As for ordinary punters, meeting so many of them was sometimes invigorating and often illuminating. I must have chatted to hundreds. Each had their own unique story. Several stuck in my mind.

The lady with a wheat allergy AND suspected coeliac disease

Possibly the most extraordinary catch-22 sensitivity situation I’ve come across. She’d excluded wheat and gluten due to her wheat allergy, and was asked by her specialists to reintroduce it so that she could be tested for coeliac. Were she to do so, she’d risk her health and potentially her life. She rightly refused – meaning a diagnosis for coeliac could not be made, so she could not qualify for prescription food. A useful reminder that other testing procedures that do not require the reintroduction of gluten are urgently needed.

The lady with an olive allergy and olive oil sensitivity

Perhaps not the toughest allergen to avoid – although it is now, as she told me, very widely used in this country – but nevertheless I imagine a frustrating one, given this one is clearly so rare – and the lady in question seemed sad at feeling ‘unique’ in some respects, not knowing anyone with the same problem. I felt for her.

The children with multiple allergies
I did find this worrying because there were so many of them. Wheat, soya, nuts, eggs and dairy were but a fraction of it. Bananas, potatoes, sesame, corn, tomatoes, lentils, peas, chickpeas… the list in some cases seemed endless. So sad, and such a stress for the parents.

The father with a coeliac dad and a coeliac son…
.. both recently diagnosed, who’d been told by his GP that neither he, nor his daughters, need be tested for coeliac. They each have a 10% chance of having coeliac disease (possibly higher). NICE guidelines specify that first degree relatives should be tested for coeliac. All doctors should know this. Clearly not all doctors know this. It makes me a bit annoyed. The last line was an understatement.

There were many others. Some were clearly distressed at their conditions, many of whom just wanted to talk at length about them – I got the sense that, in some cases, it was the only reason they were at the show, for there was no one else prepared to listen for so long. Others were upset that the medical establishment had, in their eyes, and one way or another, somehow failed them. Others that life had dealt them a really tough card. “Why me?”

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that food sensitives are a morose, self-pitying lot because, as I learned, it is not true. There were a lot of positive, dynamic people, out to source as much info as possible in order to best deal with their or their children’s sensitivities, pointedly refusing to feel sorry for themselves and just getting on with the job in hand. Nobody exemplified this better than the girl diagnosed with coeliac – get this – the day before the show, who was out on a real mission to vacuum up as much as possible. I hope she’s reading – and I salute her attitude. So many visitors to the stand were laughing about their circumstances with great humour – it will, I’m sure, stand them in great stead as they move forward.

There was a huge turn-out, and if I had to pick one stand-out emotion from all those I witnessed – it was that of relief. Thank Goodness, in other words. Thank goodness that there is all this information, thank goodness that there are all these foods, thank goodness that there are all these people trying to help us – some of whom don’t even have any dietary restrictions themselves.

While at the stand, Michelle also kindly allowed me to sell advance copies of my new book, Coeliac Disease: What you need to know, and I’ll tell you all about that in a few days’ time.

Were you at the show? What did you think of the visitors and exhibitors? Let me know.

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