In the summer of 2014 I became very ill overnight. I was barely able to eat and spent all of my time in bed with severe stomach pains etc. After three weeks I called the doctor. After several tests and two months of being ill, it was finally concluded that it was not a virus but an allergy or intolerance to food; I then began an elimination diet. After many months of being ill, and cutting out each food group, my doctor concluded that I have a severe intolerance to gluten, which may or may not be permanent. Since then I’ve also been diagnosed with IBS. I am still undergoing tests to find out whether I have more serious conditions such as IBD or coeliac disease.
Gluten is protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Intolerance and sensitivities to it are fairly common, and cause the body to reject gluten, leading to the symptoms that I had.
Intolerance and sensitivities are only the tip of the iceberg. Some people have allergies to gluten, causing them to go into anaphylactic shock – forcing them to carry an EpiPen with them at all times. Others have a serious auto-immune condition called coeliac disease (CD). CD causes the body’s immune system to attack the gut due to the presence of gluten causing the above symptoms, plus: lasting damage to the gut, an increased risk of bowel cancer, and in some cases where a gluten free diet is not used, osteoporosis. 1 in 100 people have CD. Coeliac UK predicts that 500,000 people are living with the condition but are NOT diagnosed.
As well as this array of gluten related illnesses people can have intolerances and allergies to lactose, dairy, soya, nuts, eggs, lupin etc. Awareness of these conditions is poor, leading to ignorance about the exact impact on the sufferers’ lives.
People like me have to avoid gluten completely in their diets in order to feel well. I, for example, can barely function when eating a gluten inclusive diet. Avoiding gluten may be harder than it sounds. It is not only found in bread, pizzas, and pastas; but also in malt vinegar, soy sauce, breakfast cereals, beer and some soups.
Cross-contamination is another big worry for those with a dietary requirement. Kitchens or factories need to follow strict procedures: such a hand washing in between handling allergens, separate preparation areas, separate utensils, and separate cooking areas. Just one gluten-containing breadcrumb falling into my food could lead to me being ill for days or weeks.
Many national chain restaurants are becoming more informed on dietary requirements. For example, Pizza Express, Ed’s Easy Diner, TGI Fridays, Costa and Starbucks now have many gluten free options. It seems clear to me that all eateries, especially those catering for large communities, such as at a university, should provide several options suited to dietary requirements.
When I was first diagnosed, naturally I hoped to find suitable options on campus. I was disappointed to find a small selection of snack sized gluten and dairy free cakes as well as a few types of potato crisps or popcorn that were suitable. In my first year at the university I used to regularly buy sandwiches for lunch, but once I had to remove gluten from my diet I began to boycott the university cafes and shops altogether; it worked out much cheaper to bring a gluten free sandwich in a lunchbox from home, not to mention much more filling than a small packet of popcorn and a mini cake!
Therefore, when I submitted my request for more gluten free food to the ChangeIt campaign I was doubtful that any progress would be made.
My main aim with this campaign was to be able to find convenient, reasonably priced and tasty gluten free lunch options on campus on a day to day basis. For those of us with dietary requirements, the lack of convenient food options is not just a matter of going hungry for a few hours, it also makes us excluded from the general community on campus.
My experience finding food on campus since the ChangeIt campaign has been much the same as before I submitted my thoughts. Often when I try to get lunch in Dolce Vita or Campus Central there is only popcorn, crisps or a small cake/chocolate bar/cereal bar on offer. Recently Dolce Vita haven’t been displaying the gluten free brownie and I’ve had to ask them to go into the back to get it. Although this is not an issue for me as I am confident asking for gluten free food now, it could lead some students to feel that they are being awkward when having to ask for something particular that the staff have to then go and get.
Although there is now a gluten free menu in Mojo’s (which is a fantastic improvement on what was available before) the kitchen processes mean that for someone as sensitive to gluten as I am (which will also include people with coeliac disease) the food is still not suitable and will still make me ill. Separate areas, utensils and fryers (for chips) need to be used in order for the food to be considered “gluten free” for coeliacs as opposed to “no gluten containing ingredients”.
The university have added a few more options since my campaign began. Recently two gluten free wraps have been added to Dolce Vita, as well as gluten free falafel box. Although pricey, it’s nice to have an option. The vegetable and houmous wrap is not to my taste, and so I won’t be buying it again, but I’m pleased to see an improvement.