The Celiac Class Divide

Recently while waiting tables at a restaurant in New York, a coworker of mine was almost fired. His transgression: He served a customer a dish without specifying beforehand whether it was gluten-free or not. If you are wondering whether this particular customer had celiac -- she did not. She was however, an Upper East Side mother, and that meant she did have a fierce protectiveness for the gluten-intolerant son dining alongside her. Though his meal had been gluten-free, she grew concerned about her own dish's proximity to his digestive tract. "I was not told if my dish was gluten-free," she wrote in an email to my manager the following day. "We shared forks and other utensils. Does this mean my son has been contaminated by gluten? Do I need to drive him to the hospital?"

If you number among millennials like myself, then it's likely growing up you'd never heard of gluten and were unaware that people were dying in droves from inadvertently consuming it. But gluten-free advocates are everywhere nowadays, and their trump card is the unassailable celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder whose vagueness of symptoms are in direct proportion to the marketability of its food products. Though this disease affects less than 1 percent of the population, it does affect about 95 percent of fashionable white Americans, a fact any reasonably intelligent person will quickly detect. Less perceptible however is where these sorts of trendy-diseases stems from, how insidious their long-term consequences might ultimately be, and just what role we as millennials have in perpetuating them.

For my coworker those consequences were very upfront. The managers had him by the scrape of his neck. He was accused of giving "the worst service ever" -- even though the mother and her son had gotten their meals on time and left in relative satisfaction. Yet for this one error of judgment, that is, placing a possibly gluten-contaminated dish in the vicinity of a celiac sufferer, (both dishes were in fact gluten-free) he had to beg and plead for his job, and was ultimately deprived of his more lucrative shifts. It seemed his livelihood had gone head-to-head with the whims of a one-percenter and lost. And that's when I knew what celiac really stands for. Because if today's profusion of allergies and sensitivities can be summed up by one word, it's one millennials are all too familiar with: entitlement.

Once it was enough to simply say you didn't like a food to justify not eating it. Then came allergies. Now we've arrived at autoimmune deficiencies. While diet fads come and go, gluten-aversion distinguishes itself by latching on to alarmist descriptors like "disease." Its proponents don't care whether science confirms their ideas or not. They take it on word-of-mouth faith. "I went on a gluten-free diet, and now feel great," one says to the other, and the contagion spreads. In this way wheat, a staple of human diet for over eight-thousands years, has become a toxin overnight. Gluten-free products promise to alleviate the threat - but at a premium price.

As Americans, once we believe that something is unhealthy for us, we become like the woman at my restaurant, demanding with entitlement that the rest of the world fall into line and cater to our convictions. But wealthier people have wealthier convictions; they believe they deserve only the best foods. Which brings us to the nefarious, almost hidden downside to the whole thing. Obsessing with trends like "gluten-free" ensures that new varieties of more expensive foods will have to be churned out on a regular basis, thereby pushing regular-priced items off the store shelves, where the members of less-privileged classes might need access to them. With 18.9 percent of Americans reporting that they are struggling afford food as of 2013, this sort of gluten-mania will only further hammer down the wedge between our nation's classes.

Ironically, as millennials burdened with massive student debts and an unstable economy, we are often among those unable to afford this new trend. But we are also the most susceptible to it. In desiring to adopt the fashions that define us most progressively, we risk setting ourselves up for failure -- take the bait of "gluten-free" and we will land in the trap of entitlement we are so often accused of. While I'm positive my coworker will rebound and choose to be more careful when handling the entitlement of our customers in the future (his income depends on it after all) I can only hope my millennial brethren will exercise a little more critical thinking when it comes to handling their own. Because, if at the end of the day, we are what we eat, we might end up a society divided into "gluten-free haves" and "gluten-free have-nots."