9 gluten-free mistakes made in restaurants
How many times have you seen "gluten-free menu" and thought that meant it was safe for coeliacs?
And how many times have you discovered it wasn't?
I first wrote about this a while ago for Gluten-Free Heaven magazine. It was soon after the allergen laws had been introduced and restaurants were keen to comply with regulations.
A lot of places hadn't quite understood what the term "gluten-free" meant. They'd looked at allergen laws and labelled foods that had "cereals containing gluten". So far, so good.
But some of them decided that meant anything that didn't have gluten in it could then be deemed "gluten-free".
Just because a product doesn't have any gluten-containing ingredients in it doesn't mean it's ok for a coeliac to eat.
The rule is the product must contain fewer than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten.
Try and visualise it. That is a teeny-tiny amount. It makes me think of splitting an atom.
The downfall for many places is their lack of understanding around cross-contamination. So here's what you need to do if you're coeliac and you want to be sure your meal is safe for you to eat:
Ask the manager (note: not waiter - we'll come to that in a moment) about the restaurant's catering methods. If gluten is handled in the kitchen, how is it kept separate from gluten-free food?
What kind of gluten are they using? Is it airborne (e.g. flour) or is it in sealed bottles (like beer)?
What are the chances of the gluten cross-contaminating other food?
Do they use separate fryers for gluten-containing products (e.g. battered cod) and non-gluten-containing products (e.g. chips)?
Do they use separate tongs to handle gluten-containing cakes?
Do they use a different wand for oat milk (or is their oat milk gluten-free)? (This is particularly important if you like to have a milky coffee.)
Which staff members have really understood their allergy training? Some restaurants have a policy that managers must take an order if there's a customer with a dietary requirement, which you may find reassuring as it shows how seriously they take their customers.
Does the chef understand you're coeliac and not trying out a new diet (e.g. keto)? This is crucial: if the chef is clear about your needs, you're more likely to have a gluten-free meal. There are many chefs who get irate about "faddy" dieters.
Finally, it's not always about the restaurant itself. Do the people you're dining with understand the importance of your diet? Someone moaned to me once she'd been given a meal contaminated with gluten because her co-worker had told the waitress "if she doesn't know gluten's in the meal it won't matter". She spent the rest of the night in the loo.
Don't be afraid to assert your needs, even if you're rebuffed with annoying comments such as, "Other coeliacs don't have a problem with this" or "Can't you just have a little bit?"
And when you do come across a place that caters brilliantly for gluten-free, make sure you champion them on social media. Tell the world! Go to coeliac Facebook groups and post photos of the delicious food you ate safely. We should all benefit from these wonderful establishments!
Click here for more advice on eating out safely as a coeliac. You deserve to be healthy!