It’s that time of year where companies host their holiday food drives. While it’s easy to reach into the back of your kitchen cabinets for random shelf-stable goods you didn’t get around to eating in the past months, many healthcare providers are encouraging those in a position to give to also be thoughtful about donating items that are suitable for dietary restrictions related to the management of certain health conditions.
I spoke with Boston-based dietitian and gut health and nutrition expert Kate Scarlata, MPH, RDN, LDN, with 30 years of experience as a clinician, writer, researcher, and speaker. A New York Times best-selling author, she specializes in food intolerance and dietary approaches to improving digestive health, such as gluten-free and low-FODMAP (FODMAPs are a group of short-chain carbohydrates thought to contribute to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and similar digestive disorders). Her passion is to educate health professionals and patients on gut health topics as well as patient advocacy via her #IBelieveinyourStory campaign.
In the spring of 2021, she launched the #EndHungerPain initiative, aiming to raise awareness of the intersection of food insecurity and food intolerance and the ways in which food insecurity can have a disproportionate impact on those with allergies or digestive conditions such as IBS and celiac disease. Starting in April of 2021, Scarlata traveled to food pantries on the east coast with an Airstream trailer full of gluten free, low FODMAP and allergy-friendly foods.
Here, she answers my questions about what we should keep in mind when donating to holiday foods drives — and any time of year.
Jess Cording: What inspired you to help bring awareness to the need for making more gut-friendly foods available to people who rely on resources like food pantries?
Kate Scarlata: With the growing rate of food insecurity and the downstream impact of the pandemic (estimated to impact 1 in 8 currently), I experienced an ah-ha moment. How were people living at the intersection of food insecurity and food intolerance managing to get the foods they need to keep their GI symptoms in check? If you feel poorly, how can you care for yourself and your children? I started to contact organizations working in the food insecurity space to assess what was being done to help meet the needs of food pantry guests with food intolerance, and found that very little was being done for people that required gluten free, and low FODMAP foods (my area of expertise) as well as food allergy needs. I felt I needed to step up, raise awareness and help change this landscape.
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Cording: What is something you wish everyone knew about this issue?
Scarlata: Food insecurity exists all around us. It lives in every single zip code. And we can not flourish individually or as a nation, if 1 in 8 of our citizens is undernourished and going to bed hungry. Food insecurity has lasting effects on health and well-being. Food insecurity increases risk of mental health issues, iron deficiency anemia, asthma risk (in children), poor nutrition and obesity, particularly in women.
Cording: What are some of the items that are often found in food pantries that can be problematic for individuals with digestive health issues.
Scarlata: Commonly donated items at food pantries include canned beans, wheat based bread, wheat pasta, cereal and canned soups, which can all be problematic for people with low FODMAP or gluten free diet needs. Most of these products contain gluten or FODMAP carbohydrates found in wheat, onion, garlic and legumes (e.g.beans). About 1 in 7 people in the US experience irritable bowel syndrome and may be sensitive to FODMAP carbohydrates—which in IBS can contribute to debilitating abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. Gluten is a protein found in many food pantry staples (like boxed cereal, pasta, bread, soups). Gluten intake in a person with celiac disease leads to intestinal inflammation and an increased risk of intestinal cancer. Gluten-free foods cost about twice that of their wheat-filled alternatives, and gluten-free crackers are almost triple the cost of traditional crackers—adding an extra layer for people struggling financially.
Cording: What are some items people should donate that they may not think of that would be good choices for people with IBS?
Scarlata: Specific to the low-FODMAP diet: non-perishable items include: rolled oats, brown rice, quinoa, polenta, corn tortillas (and chips), canned chickpeas and canned lentils (these have lower FODMAP content than other legumes), peanut butter, canned tuna or salmon. And any low-FODMAP certified food items. A few examples are FODY* foods products (all 100% low-FODMAP certified), Frito-Lay SunChips and Bare Snacks Strawberry Banana Chips and Coconut Chips (recently certified low-FODMAP), Quaker Gluten-Free Rice Crisps (low-FODMAP certified), Schar gluten-free offers gluten-free products, and many of their products are also low-FODMAP certified.
*Disclaimer: Scarlata is a paid advisor with FODY Food Company