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Going Gluten Free as a Human Rights Issue

Co-author: Christopher Moore-Vissing. Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Summer 2016 Issue

Image: CC--Hernán Piñera 07/11/2016 - People with celiac disease know that going gluten free isn't a choice—it is a health necessity. It is also a human rights issue. Food and nutrition should be seen as a citizen's human and social right. People who fail to be attentive to the health needs of people with celiac disease may be violating their rights. Like many rights issues, people may not realize they've violated someone's rights by doing, or not doing, something. But when you are the one whose rights have been violated, you know. The violation is serious for you, even when others may be oblivious to the larger context of the violation. Thinking about being gluten-free in this context may be different from the way most people view celiac disease. But it is a point of view that is well worth considering.

When you've got celiac disease and people aren't attentive to making sure you can eat gluten-free foods that are safely prepared and not contaminated, you can end up very sick in the short-run. The short-term effects may include symptoms such as gastrointestinal upset, migraines, fuzzy brain, sweats, and general malaise. As a fundamental right, what one eats should ensure people's access to a healthy, dignified and full life. People who have been "glutened" do not feel dignified as they writhe in pain, wrestle with fears of embarrassment, or modify their lifestyle and social schedules to accommodate the illness. In the long-run, if someone is continually exposed to gluten in foods, a variety of serious preventable health conditions may result. Unlike a peanut allergy that can directly kill you, exposure to gluten may result in morbidity and early mortality for people in an indirect fashion. Adhering to a gluten-free diet is of paramount importance to avoid health problems such as compromising one's weight and pubertal development, fertility, bone mineral density, and deficiencies of micro and macronutrients, not to mention the increased risk of developing malignancies, especially in the gastrointestinal system. Because the health effects of ingesting gluten for someone with celiac disease are less visible to those who don't experience them, they have been easier to ignore. Thanks to vocal advocates who now know that going gluten-free can save their lives, it is obvious that the lack of attention to making sure people can eat safely is a violation of their rights.

Let's put the issue of gluten into a larger rights context. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 after World War II and it is the first global document that codified rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled. It contains a wide range of rights and is regarded as the foundation upon which other rights documents have been built. Its Article 25 states that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control" ( The right to health and well-being are directly linked to food. Conditions like celiac disease, which are genetic in nature, are thus beyond one's control and necessary to be addressed through appropriate care and management.

In another rights treaty document that pertains directly to the rights of children and youth, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) addresses in Article 3 that "In all actions concerning children….the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration", that individuals responsible for them are required to ensure that they receive the services and protections they need, particularly in the areas of safety (and) health…". Article 24 "recognizes the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services". It goes on to emphasize the importance of disease prevention and primary health care "through the provision of adequate nutritious foods" ( This implies that nutritious foods are linked with disease prevention and well-being, and making sure children (and adults) get the proper foods is in their best interests. If a child has celiac disease and the responsible adults are inattentive to making sure they can eat safely, they are in fact violating the child's rights. There are, then, international treaties that link food and nutrition directly with human rights.

Juliana Nadal at the Department of Nutrition, Food Quality and Nutrition at the Federal University of Parana in Brazil reviews in her journal article, "The principle of human right to adequate food and celiac disease" (Demetra; 2013; 8(3); 411-423), a variety of ways that people who have celiac disease have their rights violated. Because celiac disease can be considered the most common food intolerance in the world, it is one that both individuals and social structures need to address as a mainstream issue. From how laws and consumer protections are designed at the macro level, to how food is made available and prepared at the micro level, rights of people with celiac disease hang in limbo. Some places and people are very attentive to their rights protections while others are not. Nadal contextualizes food and nutrition insecurity that afflicts individuals with celiac disease with specific regard to the principle of the Human Right to Adequate Food (HRAF).

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Diet is the single most secure treatment form for people with celiac disease. Managing one's diet enables one to control the magnitude of the disease. Laws, standards, practices and policies are necessary to secure HRAF for people with celiac disease. It is therefore important that the public be educated regarding this. By protecting individual fundamental human right to food availability in both quantity and quality, it reflects the value of society to protect the welfare of this group of people. Ultimately, rights protections promote and improve the health of the entire population.

Rights violations may also be seen through the limited availability of products intended for celiac individuals in the market. Whether looking at gluten-free food as a local, state, regional, national or global issue, there are certain countries and areas that do not have access to the same quantity and variety of gluten-free foods as in other areas. Online shopping may make it easier for some people to access foods they need, but this option is not necessarily available to everyone. If foods essential for good diets are not accessible, this forces people to make dietary compromises that may not be in their best interest.

Another area of rights violations for people who have to go gluten-free is the high cost of products. Simply put, gluten-free foods tend to cost more than other foods. People who have celiac disease have to use more of their scarce dollars to pay for food. This means there is less money available to pay for other necessities. Because gluten-free foods tend to be more expensive, this creates a social class barrier, especially for poor people or financially-strapped people with celiac disease. Poorer people will have their right to safe nutrition compromised because they can't afford the same foods as more affluent people who have celiac disease.

The issue of gluten contamination contributes to a constant situation of food and nutritional insecurity to holders of this special dietary need. The celiac diet must be completely gluten-free, which allows people to have a life relatively free of major pathological complications. Maintaining a totally gluten-free diet is not an easy task because the violation of the diet may occur voluntarily or involuntarily, and range from incorrect information on food labels to the gluten contamination of processed products. Difficulties in the availability and access to food without gluten violates the principle of the human right to adequate food. The condition of being a celiac individual exposes one to permanent food and nutrition insecurity, which could cause loss of quality of life, socialization, and health of the individual, both in the short and long term.

The problematic situation of food and nutritional insecurity that afflicts individuals with celiac disease can productively be addressed with regard to the principle of the human right to adequate food (HRAF) from the perspective of Food and Nutrition Security (FNS). It is important to know and recognize the real need of the people who live in some way under threat of food insecurity, how it impacts their health and lifestyle. Constructing, implementing and improving health policies in order to meet their needs is imperative to provide access to adequate food of nutritional quality. and to ensure that food, biological, social and cultural needs are achieved.

By understanding food as a basic human right, it is easy to understand that the absence of safe foods that address the needs of celiac individuals represents a concrete case of a group of people who often may have their rights to adequate nutrition violated. As a result, many live in a state of food and nutrition insecurity. Food must be viewed as a constitutional right of all citizens, including those with special needs which require a special diet. welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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10 Responses:

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said this on
11 Jul 2016 12:51:15 PM PST
Good work. I've often wondered if I were in prison could I eat safely...without the risk of cross contamination. And colleges need to quit viewing this as a choice rather provide safe meals or safe kitchens. On the note of being poor. There are plenty of GF foods naturally, rice, corn, potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes and others which can even be made into flours. Really a good read here. Print and give to your favorite restaurant owner.

Sharon Herzog
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said this on
18 Jul 2016 5:11:28 AM PST
I have been concerned about the hospital setting. The medical community seems quite ignorant about cross-contamination. And a nurse online said she has big problems with the hospital pharmacy over it.

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said this on
18 Jul 2016 5:53:21 AM PST
Forget about prison Lisa, what about during a natural or man made disaster to an area that's only getting relief food?

This was a very well written article, thank you. I work for a large airline and my job requires me to travel for 2-4 days at a time with no options for or access to safe meals forcing me to pack a cooler each and every time I have to go to work, while my fellow colleagues are contractually offered meals at the appropriate times. Once we get to the hotel there's hardly enough time to sleep and shower, never mind venture out tens of miles to find, if I am lucky, that one "dedicated gluten free restaurant" that's usually closed at hours I need them to be open.

Restaurants around airports and airports themselves have absolutely no safe options for eating gluten free. Over a year ago I have stopped eating at establishments that are not 100% gluten free because I was tired of getting sick all of the time and trying to figure out why.

Hopefully restaurant owners and future investors will read this article and take gluten free seriously. But sadly, until 'they' are forced to plan their day around the meals they have to eat nothing will likely change.

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said this on
18 Jul 2016 7:04:47 AM PST
Is it possible that I could send this to my local newspaper? I have heard many times "well just a little gluten couldn't hurt". Well it can and does. Restaurants especially do not understand cross contamination. And, most importantly, when traveling as I just was, I was captive on a train with no way to get anything safe for me to eat.

Audrey Honkanen
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said this on
18 Jul 2016 7:34:00 AM PST
I like the article. I'm also concerned for the people who have serious consequences from gluten, but do not have the gastrointestinal markers for celiac disease. For instance, my very sick daughter was diagnosed by genetic testing, but did not have a positive blood test or villious atrophy.

Zana Weber
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said this on
18 Jul 2016 10:55:15 AM PST
It was a great article. I have celiac disease so I know the importance of eating a safe meal and the stress of trusting that your getting that safe meal outside the home.

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said this on
20 Jul 2016 8:56:46 AM PST
Great article! In addition to the issue of gluten free food is pharmaceutical companies that can't say their products are gluten free. I was prescribed three antibiotics and went without medicine for three days for an ear infection because I needed a gluten free antibiotic. Crazy!

Kelvin S.
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said this on
26 Jul 2016 8:16:01 AM PST
While the issue of a GFD is serious for those who need it, I'm not sure that rights language is the best way to approach it. There are two kinds of "rights:" negative rights, which confer protection against interference (freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the like), and positive rights, which confer an obligation to be provided (right to counsel in a criminal trial, trial by jury, handicap accessibility). Considering a GFD a human right is conferring a positive right, which raises the question: Who is responsible? GF foods typically cost more than non-GF; does a farmer have to sell quinoa at the same price as wheat, or are taxpayers responsible to provide subsidies? The first is a recipe for food shortages (quinoa is more expensive to produce and can't be grown everywhere), and the latter will be difficult to limit to those who really need it, which means yet another open-ended demand on an already out-of-control government budget, placing ever-greater burdens on both current and future taxpayers. Seeing everything in the language of "rights" can easily devolve into a grasping battle of all against all; it's not clear that it's really going to help improve the situation.

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said this on
27 Jul 2016 4:44:01 PM PST
Human rights issues? No one has to eat out, so, where is the human rights issue? That we have to pay big money for GF food, now that I get. That sucks for sure. Please help me understand why celiac disease is a human rights issue. I must be missing something for sure.

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said this on
08 May 2017 9:26:57 PM PST
Human rights? If a person with diabetes is in a hospital, rehab center, or nursing home, every effort is made to accommodate that person for their "diet". If a child or adult is in the same situation and they have a peanut allergy, it is the same - every effort is made to accommodate that person's diet. However, in the case of those diagnosed with celiac disease, I have found NONE of the above-mentioned institutions can accommodate me with a gluten free diet..... let alone have it be free of cross-contamination! WHY NOT? I was told upon my diagnosis of CD that we were covered by the Americans With Disabilities ..... but have not seen or heard any more about that in the ensuing 6+ years.

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