Gluten free shopping and restaurant options abound in this brave new world of gluten free. But do you feel safer and more satisfied, or just more overwhelmed? Unfortunately, in spite of the FDA’s gluten-free food labeling regulations, there are still plenty of pitfalls we gluten free consumers can fall into when shopping, eating out and trusting others with our health.
“Gluten Free” but not for celiacs, or “Gluten Friendly” are two designations we’re seeing more of every day. Mom & Pop restaurants and large national chains alike, are searching for ways to both serve more consumers and protect themselves from liability, so they are getting more creative in their labeling and menu designations.
Most restaurants want to do right by their customers and none want to make anyone sick. However, when they start offering “Gluten Free” menus and “Gluten Friendly” menu options, many sink into the quagmire of semantics, confusing themselves and the consumer.
By way of example, let’s examine a restaurant at both ends of the spectrum.
In 2012, Domino’s Pizza decided to launch a gluten-free pizza offering in its retail chains. After pressure from the gluten-free community, Domino’s changed its website to now read (highlights added by me):
Clearly, this “Gluten Free” pizza is not meant for those with celiac disease or serious gluten sensitivities, nevertheless, Domino’s advertises what appears at first blush to actually be what it claims to be: a “Gluten Free Crust.”
Competitor pizza chain Pizza Hut is now offering a “certified Gluten Free Pizza” in some of its retail outlets. Cheese only and pepperoni and cheese pizzas prepared on an Udi’s Certified Gluten Free crust and certified gluten free by the GIG (Gluten Intolerance Group of North America) organization will be prepared using a “gluten free kit” containing separate marinara sauce, cheese and pepperoni and prepared on parchment paper. Employees will also change their gloves and use dedicated GF pizza cutters, according to restaurant protocol.
These pizzas will also be prepared in a common kitchen used for preparing regular gluten pizzas; if other toppings are selected instead, the company says the pizza will no longer be gluten free (these pizzas are made for “those simply looking to reduce gluten in their diets.”).
As you can see, two pizzas prepared in restaurants that are not free of gluten, but are prepared in very different ways, are both described as being “Gluten Free.” Without digging deeper, it would be difficult to know just what each restaurant meant by that designation. Perhaps you don’t find either to be safe enough for your family, or perhaps one is acceptable and the other is not, but they are both labeled “GF.”
The same difficulty arises with many other menus from restaurants described as being either “Gluten Free” or “Gluten Friendly” (or … not!). How is the customer supposed to know these restaurants define these terms, and if those foods will be served in a way that is safe enough for them?
The only way to know is to do your research, ask the questions in advance and explain to management just how seriously you take your GF diet. The choice – and the risk – are ultimately up to you. For my Top 8 tips on eating out safely, hop to my article here.
If a common kitchen is used where both gluten and gluten-free foods are made, there are lots of chances for cross-contact (when gluten food touches gluten free food) or cross-contamination (when gluten is added to gluten-free food).
Here’s an illustration to show what cross-contamination would look like: the black beans represent gluten-free food and the pinto beans represent gluten containing food. You can see on a food preparation line just how easy it is to co-mingle foods or for line cooks to drop crumbs or sauces into gluten free foods while reaching over for another ingredient. Cross contact would occur when this line cook uses the same utensils for both, or gluten-free food touches gluten. There are so many ways things can go wrong in this kind of setting.
Even food labeling can be wrong, as in this example where otherwise gluten free salmon sushi rolls were placed in packaging with non-gluten free fake crab (which is almost always made with gluten). You must read every label and look at every package. Every time.
One way to identify safe(r) restaurants is to use apps like FindMeGlutenFree which allows users to rate restaurants after having eaten there, and identifies dedicated gluten free restaurants around the country. Also, steer clear of fast food and restaurants with food prep areas that contain a lot of gluten foods. Hop to my Top 8 Tips for Dining Out Safely, Gluten Free for more helpful tips and information.
Another method to help ensure your meal is prepared safely is to make your message very clear. Take these free restaurant cards with you next time you eat out, translated into English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese. If the staff understands the seriousness of your request, they should tell you that they cannot accommodate you with enough confidence to risk it, or that they can and they will.
Shopping for gluten free products at grocery stores can be as bad or worse than navigating menus at restaurants. It may seem like a dream come true to walk into your local grocery store and see dedicated gluten free sections.
Items that have been hand-picked and organized for your shopping ease and pleasure. Unfortunately this is not the case for most such areas.
The reality is that grocery buyers and those who stock the shelves have a whole store to manage, stock, arrange and organize.
They may take a brand that has some gluten free products and put the entire brand’s line in the Gluten Free section, even though some of those products are absolutely not gluten-free.
They also may forget to move the Gluten Free sign away from these products.
Or rely on the fact that the manufacturer hasn’t changed its formula. Or mistakenly place products they believe to be GF in the section, even though they are in error.
Don’t ever assume that every product in a given section (like the rice section) is gluten free. There are lots of seasonings and thickeners which contain gluten, and can turn up in otherwise gluten free foods like rice.
The shopper must still read every label for herself. Every label. Every time.
And if you’re unsure of an ingredient, don’t buy it. Take farro, for example. It’s found among the rice choices in many grocery stores and it looks rice-like enough … but it’s actually in the wheat family — NOT gluten free!
The best way to be certain that you’re choosing the safest gluten free foods is to buy those certified by an independent, third party certifier. To read more about this process and see what a certification looks like (as well as confusing symbols that do not actually indicate certification), hop to my article on Shopping for Safe Gluten Free Products.
As confusing and confounding as all these situations are for us, as gluten free consumers, imagine how difficult this world would be to navigate if you only dabbled in gluten free because of a friend or family member. How would you find products you were certain were gluten free and safe? You would most likely simply rely on the manufacturers, stores or so-called gluten free restaurants to tell you. The nuances and serious danger of cross-contact would likely be lost on someone who doesn’t live this life day in and day out.
So your well-meaning aunt makes a boxed brownie mix for you that she says she bought in the GF section. Do you eat it?
At a birthday party for one of your daughter’s friends, the mother assures you that she purchased a gluten free pizza for your daughter so she will be able to eat like the other kids. Do you let her eat the pizza?
These are the difficult questions we have to ask ourselves every day. Which is why it’s sometimes not better to have so many choices and opportunities for mistakes.
Bottom line: buyer beware. Oh, and read those labels!
(And the good news is that gluten-free products are getting better and better! I’ve always taken pride in the fact that folks can’t tell my recipes and products are GF, and now we gluten-free consumers have even more, better choices in all product categories! This BuzzFeed Blue video shows it is getting harder to tell gluten-free foods apart from their gluten counterparts.)