Why is Ted Cruz attacking gluten-free meals?

Politics, NakedLaw, News, Opinion, Rights

As part of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz recently said, “[T]he last thing any commander should need to worry about is the grades he is getting from some plush-bottomed Pentagon bureaucrat for political correctness or social experiments—or providing gluten-free MREs.”

Is there something inherent liberal, or left, or politically correct, about having celiac disease? Why push the unlikely duo of MREs and gluten into the campaign? Clearly, Cruz believes this will help his brand and appeal to his base, but there may be serious health implications—and impacts to military effectiveness—were his position ever to become reality.

What is an MRE?

MREs (the acronym stands for Meals Ready to Eat) are prepackaged, self-contained meals that have a long shelf life; they are used by the US military to feed soldiers in any climate with any kind of food prep facilities. MREs can be dropped from planes, dumped in the ocean, carried in a backpack in the desert, or stored in a sub-freezing building and still remain edible.

What’s the deal with gluten?

Gluten is a protein in wheat and barley, to which many people have health sensitivities. About 1% of the population has celiac disease, a potentially serious autoimmune disorder in which the body reacts to gluten.

While people with diagnosed celiac cannot join the military—Department of Defense (DOD) regulations state that “current or history of intestinal malabsorption syndromes including but not limited to celiac (disease) does not meet the [medical] standard”—many soldiers are diagnosed during their service (83% of people who have celiac, according to some estimates, have yet to be diagnosed). Millions of other Americans are believed to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which causes severe intestinal symptoms.

Soldiers with newly diagnosed celiac and those with gluten sensitivity need gluten-free meals to stay healthy. Food experts say military members given a diet that is incompatible with their medical conditions are not able to serve well, or to the best of their ability.

Are MREs gluten-free?

MREs are not designed to be gluten-free, nor are they labeled as such, making it very difficult for soldiers with these gluten-sensitivity conditions to know what they can safely eat. And eating gluten can lead to dangerous situations; for example, a soldier desperately needing to use a bathroom when none is available, such as during a raid, a situation experienced by Army Captain B. Donald Andrasik while in Afghanistan. “Being gluten-free can be a dicey prospect for a soldier,” says Andrasik.

The DOD says that the provision of gluten-free meals depends on the branch of the service. There is no standardization of policy about it at this point in time. However, the military has recently launched ComRaD, a dietary database for MREs. “Military dietitians expressed a need for publicly available nutrition information that could be used to help educate warfighters on how to properly fuel themselves before a mission, during a mission and post mission,” said Julie Smith, senior food technologist with the CFD. 

What does the president have to do with MREs?

So what does all this have to do with Ted Cruz? As commander in chief, the president is head of the military. Thus a President Cruz would technically have the power to forbid gluten-free MREs. But there are so many layers of red tape surrounding the production of MREs—from nutritionists, to combat specialists who analyze the needs of troops, to provisioning officers—it is unlikely a president would ever actually prohibit gluten-free meals. And as it now stands, MREs are not even very clearly labeled as gluten-free anyhow.

Soldiers’ rights

U.S. military members have a right to medical care that meets “available resources and generally accepted standards.” It can be argued that a medically necessary diet is required under this standard and that refusing to allow a soldier access to gluten-free food would be a violation.

In the end, Cruz’s statement got a lot of people excited. Those who rally against special interests and political correctness applaud him. Those who understand the seriousness of gluten disorders are appalled. But with Cruz continuing to trail Donald Trump in polls (and, increasingly, electoral votes), maybe the real question is how does Trump feel about gluten-free MREs?

Amazing what kinds of questions we end up asking in an election year, isn’t it?

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

Image courtesy of redstate.com