Everyone’s got that friend. That friend who, when you’re having a nice time in a nice restaurant, will slow the conversation to a grinding halt as they spend half an hour quizzing the waiter on the gluten content of this and the dairy content of that. See, they can’t have either, because they are, as they say, "intolerant".
But are they? A new study suggests that at least half of people who think they have a food allergy do not.
The study, published on Jama Network Open, found that out of 40,443 subjects, just 10.8% were estimated to be food allergic. When quizzed, though, 19% believed that they were.
A few years back it was estimated that a whopping 33% of Americans were living a gluten-free lifestyle while in the UK in 2017, the "Free From" market grew by £230m. This despite there being no definitive test for gluten intolerance. People with coeliac disease* who have been medically diagnosed as unable to eat gluten? They’re one in 100.
In a similar vein, worldwide sales of non-dairy milk alternatives more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 to $21bn, despite a study showing that a giant 44% of people who claimed to be dairy-intolerant had not been diagnosed by a doctor.
Whether this avoidance of gluten and dairy is down to health fads perpetuated by 'clean eating' bloggers or whether it can be attributed to something as well-meaning as the rising interest in self-care and wellness, it's clear that food intolerances and allergies are big news.
But what if you’ve been dealing with this difficult diet for your whole life? We speak to two people with long-term diet restrictions to find out how the rise in faddy eating has affected their lifestyles.
Sam, 29, was diagnosed as lactose-intolerant as a baby.
"They found out I was lactose-intolerant as soon as they put me on baby food. If I accidentally eat anything with dairy in, it’s not pretty. There’s varying levels of pain – it can be as simple as bloating and gas but usually I throw up. I keep throwing up. And then I get diarrhoea. Nice. Sometimes I get a rash, too – little bumps all up my arms.
"There’s a lot of stuff that contains lactose that you wouldn’t think of. Like some crisps, and white bread. The whey in milk is often used as an additive to bulk out cheap food.
"Growing up, it was harder than it is now. There wasn’t any Free From sections at the local supermarket. You could get soya milk but that was about it. My mum just had to be really careful and cook stuff for me separately from the rest of the family.
"I started noticing more people saying they were lactose-intolerant a few years ago and it has meant things have changed. The supermarkets now are nothing like the supermarkets I grew up with. There’s so many more options now – especially when it comes to different milks. It does mean they’re more expensive, though.
"Another good thing is that I’ve got the chance to try so many cakes and sweet things I never experienced as a kid. I wasn’t allowed ice cream or chocolate like the other kids but now, all coffee shops have got dairy-free options and I just want to try them all!
"There are problems, though. For starters I think a lot of people avoid dairy because it’s like, the 'latest' diet to do or whatever but I think it’s easier for them to say they’re 'allergic' in shops and restaurants. I feel like when I tell waiters I’m intolerant now, they might feel like I’m lying or just trying to be trendy. I’ve asked waiters if a dish comes with dairy in, they’ll check and then it’ll still show up on the table with dairy in. I’ve even been ill from stuff in restaurants where I’ve said I’m intolerant. Happens all the time. To be honest, I sometimes say I’m vegan because I feel like more people know and respect being vegan than they do being lactose-intolerant.
"I wish dairy-free stuff was lower in sugar, too. I think because coffee shops and supermarkets are aiming their dairy-free stuff at people who have tasted dairy products before and who want their non-dairy products to taste the same as the dairy products they’ve given up, they add sugar to compensate – whereas I don’t know what it was meant to taste like in the first place!
"It does annoy me that I might get mixed up with people who are just trying to give lactose up as a food trend. I think travelling is a real tell when it comes to this. I travel a lot and when you go to places like Spain and Germany people look at you like you’re crazy when you say you can’t eat dairy. It’s so hard to get lactose-free products there. You’d assume countries so close to us would have the same amount of lactose-intolerant people – so why are they catering for it in every restaurant in the UK?"
Emma, 21, was diagnosed with coeliac disease when she was 3 years old
"I have to avoid gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. If I do eat it, my immune system attacks my own body thinking there’s something harmful – it hits the self-destruct button, basically. I’ll get a tummy ache, bloating, slight nausea… I do get constipation as well, although it could be worse – most coeliacs get the opposite!
"It did separate me as a child. Things like, at parties I couldn’t have the cake, school trips it was always difficult to get me food and, as I got older, eating out has always been quite difficult. We used to get food for me on prescription when I was a child but as I got older, they started charging.
"It was probably about three years ago I noticed more and more people avoiding gluten. Because of it, I get a lot of people thinking that being gluten-free is a choice I’ve made. People think it’s less serious because it’s not technically an allergy. People will say, 'Oh it’s only got a little bit of gluten in' and I mean, you wouldn’t tell someone who is allergic to nuts that something’s only got 'a little bit of nut in'. I know some coeliacs who can deal with that 'little bit' but for me I wouldn’t even get away with one biscuit. With me you need to use separate baking trays in the oven.
"A good thing is that a lot of restaurants do the gluten-free thing now, same with supermarkets. Now, even the little local shops will have something I can eat. It’s made eating out easier and honestly it tends to be the Italian restaurants that have the most wheat- and gluten-free options.
"I do get served stuff with gluten in, though. I had a jacket potato with tuna and mayo the other day and the waitress was like, 'Oh you do realise that the mayo isn’t gluten-free, don’t you?' And I was like, well why would you serve it to me? Also, things like gluten-free pizzas – the waiters will come back and say that the base is gluten-free but do I realise that the toppings aren’t? It just seems bizarre to me that if that’s the case you’d offer it on the menu as gluten-free.
"I do find it frustrating the way some celebrities talk about being gluten-free for weight loss. I don’t mind if people say they’re doing it for health benefits. If they find gluten bloats them then going gluten-free isn’t such a problem but they should get themselves tested first for coeliac disease before they go gluten-free. But I don’t like it when people do it just to lose weight.
"I think because I am a 21-year-old girl, you get people who assume that because I’m gluten-free I’m doing it as a diet. I think if I was 20 years older I would be treated as someone who has a medical condition but because of my age, I do wonder if that’s why people don’t take it seriously."
*FYI it’s important to note that coeliac disease is not an 'allergy' to wheat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is in fact a medical disorder that affects the immune system.