Before leaving Brooklyn for the 2015 Gluten-Free and Allergen Friendly Expo in Secaucus, New Jersey, I ate a bagel and cream cheese. When I reached Port Authority, I realized I was very tired from—I assume—the bagel, so I ordered a tall Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks. By the time the bus dropped me off at the Meadowlands Exposition Center, a shiny giant looming over a maze-like and entirely lifeless corporate plaza, I was feeling lightheaded and extremely contrarian.
The Gluten-Free and Allergen Friendly Expo events, currently spanning seven cities across the U.S., are, according to their website, “the largest and fastest growing special diet consumer events in the US.” Founded in 2007, the GFAF Expo now reports hosting over 35,000 attendees per year. As a dedicated pasta eater with a cranky, instinctive suspicion of expensive food trends, I thought it might be interesting to see how the other side eats.
About 1 percent of the population has been found to suffer from celiac disease, in which gluten (a protein in rye, barley, and wheat) can cause damage to the small intestine; an additional 6 percent is gluten intolerant. Untreated, celiac disease—which has mysteriously become more prevalent over the last 50 years—can lead to serious health conditions like infertility and cancer, and its immediate symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. The existence of true gluten intolerance in non-celiac patients is still being debated, but its short-term symptoms are said to be largely the same.
“If eating wheat was so bad for us, it’s hard to imagine that populations that ate it would have tolerated it for 10,000 years,” Sarah A. Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times in June. Human beings have been eating wheat, and therefore gluten, for at least that long; it is only in the past decade that a growing but very vocal faction of the population has come to regard it as an all-inclusive poison. A 2013 survey found that nearly 30 percent of consumers are looking to reduce or remove gluten from their diet, and that number doesn’t appear to be fading. By some estimates, the gluten-free business could reach up to $6.6 billion by 2017.
Unlike the Atkins and South Beach diets of the early aughts, the biggest health trends today bill themselves less as single-minded weight loss manuals than as lifestyle shake-ups, in which a slimmer physique is seen as the convenient natural byproduct of smarter, safer, and more exacting life choices. Followers of the paleo diet (including Jeb Bush), for example, contend that grain, starches, dairy, and processed sugar have crippled modern civilization with disease; devotees often extend their worship of the pre-agricultural era to the way they sleep, exercise, and raise children. It seems that nowadays, if given the opportunity, Americans would prefer to contextualize our weight loss within the historic grandeur of a wellness revolution.
This particular Gluten-Free and Allergen Friendly Expo took place in an enormous windowless room that smelled faintly like plastic. The first booth that caught my eye was selling gluten-free aromatherapy oils, a distinction I was not previously aware of. “They promote forgiveness, motivate, cheer,” the seller informed me, which I didn’t completely understand. “Most essential oils on the market are 5 percent, 10 percent oil—these are 100 percent oil,” she said. The woman next to me nodded raptly, clutching a sample cup filled with nuts*.
I kept moving, past a giant sign that said “FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS EAT GMOs” and a gluten-free bagel brand advertising itself as “Passionately Made. Persistently Real. Confidently Enjoyed.” I stopped briefly at the AllerWare booth, considering whether anyone I know might want a temporary tattoo of a lobster holding a “No shellfish!” sign. Eventually, overwhelmed, I sat down at a Kitchen Craft Cookware cooking demo.
The chef behind the counter asked me, the 5-year-old sitting next to me, the 8-year-old sitting next to him, and the middle-aged couple behind us if we knew what a zookeeper’s favorite vegetable was. We didn’t know. “Zucchini!” he cried, chuckling theatrically. Chef Mike informed us that he was making a “nine-vegetable salad” as he fed cabbage, squash, and carrots through a $379 stainless steel vegetable hopper. “If you eat these veggies on a regular basis, you can reduce your cancer risk by 85 percent!”
“Really,” the woman behind me breathed.
My nine-vegetable cancer salad, topped with three inches of dressing.
“Now, how many of us are health-conscious?” asked Mike, scanning the growing crowd. Jeff and Susan, the couple behind me, let out a whoop of accord; the child sitting next to me raised his hand and whispered, “Broccoli is a treat.” Panicking, I slowly raised my hand.
Mike proceeded to show off his special no-oil-no-butter sautée pan, into which he dropped one frozen chicken breast, one slice of raw sweet potato, and no seasoning. While we waited for these items to transform into food, the chef asked how many of us regularly cooked meals at home. My 5-year-old friend raised his hand, which I found aggressive and disingenuous—as did Jeff and Susan, who clarified, to a flurry of impressed murmurs, that they cook five meals at home per day.
A few minutes later, Mike used a sponge and a battered vintage pot to demonstrate the many different ways aluminum cookware can kill your family. At this point, though, the chicken was almost ready, and it occurred to me that I would need to leave in order to avoid eating it. I immediately dipped out, moving with purpose towards a dour-faced gluten-free travel agent (“Drink in the sights without worrying about the food”), then to a muscular blonde woman shilling a salsa called “Naked Infusions” alongside her bandana-wearing children, who both looked about 10 years old.
Happy, well-behaved children made up a significant percentage of the event’s population, which I found very confusing. If my parents had brought me to an event like this when I was little, I would have sat in a corner and cried, or faked a stomachache, or hidden under a table while watching them frantically search for me. What I absolutely would not have done is sample the food. But the children of the 2010s are, apparently, an entirely different breed, willing and eager to explore the frontiers of edibility.
The food, in general, did not look appealing. In many cases the samples seemed like something one might feed a pet, or an astronaut. I tried a mini hot dog, which was fine, because it was just an organic hot dog; I also tried a gluten-free Margherita pizza, which was also fine because it was three inches long and mostly sauce. Elsewhere, there were green muffins, dehydrated fruit bars, and tiny slabs of what looked like concrete. But the crowd, with its hordes of overjoyed offspring, couldn’t get enough. People were eagerly snatching samples like they were at a Tuscan farmer’s market with Diane Lane, eyes closed for the chew, heads nodding with pleasure.
At one point I struck up a conversation with a woman next to me, who hadn’t touched gluten in 30 years and said she appreciated the convention for “bringing awareness.” Later, while I peered at two adjacent booths that both billed themselves as “Gluten-Free Asian Food,” wondering if it was any kind of Asian food in particular, I started chatting with a man named Dave, who was wearing orange pants, an orange shirt, and a name tag. “I don’t have Celiacs, but I have gluten intolerance,” he explained to me. “I lost 30, 40 pounds! Unfortunately I gained it all back, but, you know.”
There was an enormous amount of raw enthusiasm in this airless room, and at a certain point, vulnerable and alone, I adapted. “Oh my god, I had no idea imitation crab had gluten in it!” I heard myself clucking conspiratorially. “Yummy!” I saw myself calling to a bakery vendor, delivering a thumbs-up as a gluten-free chocolate-chip cookie caught in my throat. The artificial taste lingered in my mouth for hours to come.
But the Expo, cheerful as it was, was not free from controversy. One day after the event, I received an email from the GFAF Expo team:
We were made aware that Nature’s Path handed out sample size cereal packets that are NOT gluten free. If you received a packet, please do not eat it. Discard it or share it with someone who can safely enjoy it.
Your safety is our top priority.
-The GFAF Expo Team
That same day, General Mills issued a massive recall of 1.8 million boxes of gluten-free Cheerios, a vendor at the Secaucus event, which were found to contain wheat. These slip-ups, and their grim delivery and reception, illustrate something that I’ve now experienced (almost) firsthand: for those with severely modified diets—necessarily or otherwise—there is danger lurking at every corner.
I left the Gluten-Free and Allergen Friendly Expo after nearly two hours, having accrued three Shop Rite pens, a Celiac Support Association card that said “As a person with celiac disease, I am on a gluten-free diet,” two packets of freeze-dried fruit, and a coupon for gluten-free imitation crab.
“Oh god, there’s sun out there,” laughed a woman beside me as we walked out the door.
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Image via Ellie Shechet, animation by Bobby Finger