Gluten Cross Contamination- at home & in restaurants

glutenfreeI want to talk a bit about cross-contamination. Normally I try to focus on the positive aspects of being gluten-free; helping people to be proactive in their cooking and travel, and trying in my own life to experience fully the fabulous gluten-free options that are available to us.

But as I sit here reeling from the effects of serious gluten contamination Saturday evening at the hands of an inexperienced and very careless server at a restaurant we frequent often, I feel that I need to address the very serious issue of cross contamination and the ramifications of the gluten-free ‘fad’.

For me being gluten free is not a ‘fad’. I’m not gluten free out of a desire to eat better, lose weight, avoid GMOs, or any of the other trendy reasons people go gluten-free these days. I have always said if you feel better not eating gluten, then don’t eat it. But for me, eating gluten-free is a matter of life and death. Let me explain what happens in my body when I have 2 BITES, yes 2 Bites of bread.

  • Within the hour I experience severe intestinal cramping which will last 6-8 hours. This isn’t like PMS cramps, this is like chef’s knives slicing apart my insides…
  • Within 24-48 hours I will experience a painful and unattractive acne breakout around my chin and lips. If I’m lucky the swelling will recede in 7-10 days.
  • Within 24-48 hours my legs will start itching. Depending on the amount of gluten ingested, they can stay itchy for 2-3 weeks. At its worst, its an itchy, blistery rash. At its best, a little cortizone and deep breathing can control the itching and it will dissipate in 7-10 days.

Forgive me if I get a little irritated when I hear waitstaff saying “a little cross contamination is okay”…

This happens whether or not I take a sip of beer (somebody served me a margarita spiked with beer at a party and didn’t tell me) or eat a bite of a Rice-Krispie treat (Rice Krispies have malted barley syrup making them not gluten free)

This is why 20ppm is the allowable gluten level for anyone with Celiac…that’s the amount of flour that fits under your pinkie fingernail…maybe 2 crumbs. Studies show that nearly 45% of ‘gluten free’ food manufactured in a facility containing wheat has more than the allowable gluten level. That means no Trader Joe’s lemon mustard aioli…It should be gluten free. It’s made with oil, lemon, mustard, eggs, etc.. No flour whatsoever. But it’s manufactured in a facility containing wheat- and even though their line might be far away from where the flour is, I can’t risk that jar being one of the almost 45%.

dsc03066And here’s the rub. The gluten-free fad has done wonders for raising awareness about gluten. When I was diagnosed almost 17 years ago with Celiac, people looked at me like I had 8 heads when I asked if certain foods contained gluten. Now, many who work in food service are at least aware. The problem is, many are not aware of the serious consequences that some of us have when we ingest gluten. Or they foolishly assume that people are asking for gluten free for frivolous purposes and don’t bother to be meticulous in the kitchen.

Successful gluten-free eating outside the home is a two-way street. It is the responsibility of the gluten-free eater to be proactive, ask questions, and ultimately decide for themselves what they feel comfortable consuming. And it is the responsibility of the restaurant, managers and staff if they are claiming they have gluten-free offerings to ensure those items going out to the gluten-free table are indeed gluten free. Apparently easier said than done. But I do believe continued education helps, which is why I’m being so forthcoming about what happens to me when I ingest gluten.

Restaurant owners/managers/servers- I’d love to hear from you. Gluten Free-ers, I’d love to hear from you too..

Here’s what I personally would like to see and experience in a restaurant:

  • Accurate menu descriptions… If you state on a menu that something is gluten-free, then don’t EVER send anything out on that plate containing gluten. It’s one thing for me to ask and verify that something is gluten-free, but well meaning grandparents, babysitters, parents of friends etc. will likely be too trusting and believe that everything on the plate is gluten free.
  • Instruct your waitstaff to never ever ever say something is gluten-free if they don’t know. Ever. The correct answer should always be, “I don’t know. Please don’t taste anything until I’ve verified with the chef/manager.” I will happily wait if it means avoiding hours and days of discomfort.
  • Come up with a system on your line to alert line cooks and expeditors that a ticket is gluten-free. This could be as simple as a red marker, or an extra button on the computer tickets.

In return I (and hopefully other gluten free diners)

  • Will be patient. I recognize I may be the first gluten-free diner you’ve encountered. I will answer your questions, and am willing to read labels or speak with the chef.
  • Will make an educated and informed decision about what (if anything) I feel comfortable eating in your establishment, and I will not complain if your kitchen is run in a way that makes me not feel safe. Since we’re not in Paris and there are no gluten free restaurants in the US (that I know of) I recognize I’m only 1 customer among many, and that your restaurant may not be a good fit for my needs.
  • Will be a loyal customer if I feel safe eating in your establishment. And will tell all my gluten free friends to support your restaurant too.
  • Will politely inform the managers if there has been an issue. (no need for tantrums)

Profit margins in restaurants are razor thin, and studies show that restaurants who maintain a reputation of being a safe place to eat gluten-free see a 17% increase in their bottom line… That’s huge. I also eat locally. I’ve found the kitchens and staff at local restaurants are far more willing to go the extra mile to earn and keep gluten-free diners’ business. While many chains are hopping on the gluten free bandwagon, most also have a CYA disclaimer saying they can’t really guarantee gluten free… Fine, that’s their prerogative, but that’s not quite good enough for me.

Have you been cross contaminated? Share your experiences below. Know of a safe and delicious restaurant? Share that below too. Check out our gluten free travel page for write-ups on places we’ve enjoyed. More will be coming in 2015!

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