Gluten Free Guerrillas
8,415 members3,482 posts

Symbolic Coeliac Information Card

Symbolic Coeliac Information Card

I just got back from an all-inc holiday in Cuba and had some interesting dining experiences there. One of the protective measures I take is to carry my Ipod Touch at all times. It has a GF card 'app' which describes coeliac disease in many languages.

It doesn't work too well. For a start, the text is very small and I had trouble finding someone in a restaurant who could read it.

Secondly, it uses words that make sense in English, but when translated into Spanish appear to lose their meaning.

The Spanish word for gluten appears to be 'trego', but that actually means 'wheat'. Even after some of the staff had read the coeliac message in Spanish they still didn't seem to understand it properly and would offer me beer to drink!

I would like to try to put together a coeliac warning message using pictures and symbols in a similar way to other symbols that would be recognised internationally, quickly and without ambiguity.

The crossed grain symbol would be a starting point. Add a crossed barley symbol, a mill, perhaps, representing flour, a silhouette of someone throwing up and a skull and crossbones representing poison and death.

I found I always got the best response from staff by pretending to be sick and rubbing my stomach.

This needs to be developed on an international level, involving coeliac organisations from around the world.

Any takers or suggestions, please?

10 Replies

Hi Phil

Sorry you had a bad time explaining coeliac disease in Cuba. To be honest, you did well - I've stayed in Havana and was glad the food choice was pork, rice and beans! The only gluten foods I came across were those flown in for tourists - breakfast cereals, etc. Their diet didn't seem to contain the huge array of gluten infested products that ours does, consequently they still see CD as a disease of Northern European, USA and Australasia. They still have very low rates of CD. I've travelled to many places where they don't have CD (but they don't have gluten foods either) so CD does seem to be a price we pay for being a privileged nation.

You are right, In Spanish, Trigo is wheat, but thankfully the word "Gluten" is fairly universal. Actually it is a Latin word that means "GLUE".

I've just returned from southern mainland Spain where my queries for "sin gluten" were taken very seriously. In the hotel I stayed in they prepared me gluten/wheat free bread every day which they brought from a separate kitchen to my table to avoid cross-contamination. In restaurants I've asked the staff and there always seemed to be someone knowledgeable who steered me away from foods. I've noticed the big supermarkets have a much wider range of gluten free products than ours do. Even branches of McDonalds in Spain display gluten free bread available! My son lives in Madrid and is always telling me about something new he's discovered like gluten free sandwiches in the cafe at the airport!

On the Internet there are many different cards for coeliacs to print off - this one makes quite a serious case:

Ironically I have a much more difficult time with lactose intolerance - but that's a another story ....


Hi Jacks, The card you suggested is exactly the one I have in my ipod app; the one that most people couldn't read or understand.

We were in Havana for 3 nights and found eating there a lot easier. The rest of the holiday we were in a very touristy area where the food was 'international'. A lot more choice of food but a lot greater the risk of cross contamination, in the buffet meals for example people picking up breaded food with tongues then sticking the same tongues into the vegetables.

In a 'spanish' a la carte restaurant at the hotel the waitress said she understood coeliac then served a starter that had two sticks of pasta pocking out of it for decoration. So much for understanding. But it takes me back to the point I was trying to make about symbols on a card.

We all understand traffic symbols because they are self explanatory and easily transportable across languages.

The challenge is to work out some symbols that say "please dont let anything with gluten in it get into or touch my food or I could be violently ill and it will damage my gut"

Same might be applied to lactose intolerance

Picture for starters....

cow > milk + food = sick person;

food - milk = happy, healthy person.

As I said, I got instant understanding by pointing to bread and cakes and making jestures of a violently ill person.

On holidays in Spain and Greece I recall seeing pictures of different food dishes outside restaurants with their prices on them to get around the language problem. Anyone can understand a picture of a plate of spag-bol, or chicken and chips, or fried eggs and bacon.

How do you draw a simple picture of some wheat being turned into flour, which is then mixed into a sauce. That's the challenge.

Apps for ipods could use animation.

Cards containing symbolic information could extend to a small pack, with pictures of glutenous food with red 'Xs' on them and pictures of 'safe' food with green ticks on them.

Crosses and ticks seem to be universal, as are + and - signs.


Hi Phil, I'd love to go to Cuba with all those 1950's US cars still going and the culture so lucky you.

I understand the point that you are making and there is the crossed grain symbol but to display it a vendor has to pay a licence fee to whoever owns the trademark, in the UK it is CUK.

In the US there is the Silly yak logo which children seem to like and they even have Silly yak summer camps. In the UK many coeliac do not like this because it reminds them of mad cow disease. And I'd feel like a silly moo in one of these tee shirts:

So I think its a very good idea and would like to see a symbol for coeliac who are super sensitive and can not tolerate oats. Like Vegetarian and the V for vegans so everyone is catered for. So to me this is well worth exploring.



I do think of myself as being fortunate to be able to take a holiday in Cuba, but I have no expensive habits or hobbies, am careful with my cash and place a lot of importance on getting away from work for a couple of weeks every year to prepare me for the next 50 weeks of grind.

I know most of us work hard.

I've been camping in Cornwall, with the wife and kids, and it cost just as much.

I'm going to see if I can come up with an initial design that could be distributed, discussed and improved by the coeliac community. The idea would only work if everyone bought into it and had some input.

There are coeliacs in Cuba, I was told. Some of the chemists can provide GF food. But maybe that is set up mainly for foreign visitors. The basic diet there is simple; black beans and rice with a small amount of pork or chicken.

I saw many fast food carts / counters around the streets of Havana mainly selling wheat based food to go; bread rolls, sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, cakes and pastries.

The black beans are good. They don't seem to have the same effect as our 'baked beans' if you know what I mean.

There were no black beans in the big hotels where food is multi-national and bland, to suit the customers.

Visitors get a much better taste of Cuba by staying with families I'm told.

The old American cars are incredible but not environmentally friendly; belching out smoke and fumes from the replacement Russian engines they put in them.

I saw a lot of oil wells on the Varadera strip and the air smelled of oil.

I hope everything works out for the Cubans because they have managed to resist going Capitalist with the greed and crime that seems to go with it. They do have one of the best health care systems in the world, probably because Che Guevarra wanted to P the Americans off after the Bay of Pigs fracas.


Good idea Phil! I've often found drawing a quick sketch when abroad is far more effective than those travel health cards. Or perhaps the answer is a combo of words of pictures. We'd be happy to work with you on this. Even a simple JPEG/ series of pictures could work. Of course the art is to make the side effects look severe without making it look like we'd die from gluten! Maybe a comic book style card would work well? Feel free to bat around ideas / message us. And don't forget to post up where you stayed & great places to eat out.


I've been sooo busy at work lately but this is something I have to do. I can see it starting with some rough ideas that evolve, through input from other coeliacs and feedback from food suppliers , into something that most people like and understand.

The final 'product' might look completely different from the initial scrappy sketches, but that's okay. As long as it works. That's the main thing.


Hi again Phil,

The coeliac cards are a great idea.

I was also thinking about the ideas for the lactose intolerant cards and had to resist posting the graphics (until now when I found this website!) Okay, lactose causes me some real discomfort, cramps, gas, painful trapped wind and bloating, but it can be seriously offensive for anyone sharing my proximity!

It's an inconvenience so I just avoid those foods but unlike my coeliac disease, it isn't going to kill me.


Hi again all,

Thanks for following this so far..

I started to have a go at this at lunchtime. It didn't take long to find images on the web and paste them into a Powerpoint.

I've added an image to the start of this blog showing this first rudimentary stab at one side of the card.

I see it as being two sided, A6 size, with a centre-fold to make it pocket sized.

Maybe the centrefold should divide the food process from the ingestion and illness symbols.

It isn't very easy attaching images to blog posts.

The symbols go something like:

Wheat -> Mill -> Sack

(3 symbols used to show the production of wheat flour) Needs a symbol for barley adding to it but I've not found one yet.

Arrows point from flour sack to foods containing flour:

Bread. Needs to be shown with a slice cut, with breadcrumbs. Important to show cross contamination. Red circle objects to highlight their importance.

Food on a cooker (this needs replacing with something simpler. A steaming pot and pan over flames should mean 'cooking' in any language.

An arrow points into a digestive system ( stomach and gut). Most people would recognise this. My quick image needs improving.

Another arrow points to a bed with a red cross over it.

Add the alternative symbol used in muslim countries (is it a red scimitar?) as well as the red cross and it becomes an international symbol for 'Illness'.

Side 2 of card. ( to be developed).

Initial thoughts: many different foods, fruit and vegitables are obvious, rice and corn symbols, meat and fish symbols (these are easy: cow, pig, fish, chicken), egg.

Arrow pointing to same symbols representing cooking, without the bread.

Arrow pointing into digestive system (without the cactus in the stomach)

Arrow pointing to a big, happy 'smiley', showing everything is good and okay.

Use colour where possible. Red arrows and boxes for 'bad'. Green for 'good'.

Number the areas of the card.

side 1

1) wheat and barley

2) bread and cooking

3) Ingestion of (2)

4) Illness

side 2

1) fruit veg meat fish eggs rice corn, etc

2) cooking

3) ingestion of (2)

4) Happy smiley

Well, it's a start. The images I've used probably have copyright on them so I'll have to draw new ones.


Bravo Phil!

What a clever idea... I went around the world with the same travel card app and often had to resort to sketching a wheat symbol and tummy rubbing.

How are you getting on? What help do you need from us? I like the idea of getting the different international coeliac / celiac organisations on board - can I help with this?


Hi Ben! Thanks for the support.

Because the graphics in my quick example will have copyrights on them I've started to draw the symbols out myself.

What I will then do is scan them in and arrange them in various layouts.

All help would be much appreciated, especially when it comes to deciding on the best symbols and layout. Maybe we'll end up with several different layouts to choose the best from - or even combine bits of each.

Feedback is all important.

We need as many opinions and views as possible.

Trying to draw a mouth, stomach, gut and bowel sketch as simply as possible but making it instantly and easily recognisable universally is a typical challenge in this job requiring the approval of others.

Would you be willing to join the development team Ben, and do you know how we could enlist others? Once we have a core of proactive people behind this idea is see it as being much easier to develop.

I'm still trying to make sketches of the symbols we can use for an initial 'no copyright involved' attempt but I haven't looked at it for a couple of weeks. We need a way of exchanging graphics outside of Facebook I think. Do you have any suggestions?

Cheers for now.



You may also like...