Gluten-Free Fad: Helpful Or Hurtful for Celiac Patients Eating Out?

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

Celiac disease (CD) affects roughly three million Americans. For these individuals, the consumption of even a minute amount of gluten can cause significant symptoms. This can make eating out with CD very difficult. Proper steps have to be taken to prevent the cross contamination of gluten-free products with their gluten containing counterparts. This also is essential for people who have wheat allergies or severe intolerance to gluten.

Recent fads in “going gluten free” have greatly increased the availability of these types of products and their presence on restaurant menus. But for those going gluten-free by choice — not due to CD, allergy, or intolerance — the risk of cross-contamination is non-existent. So, where does that leave patients that have to be gluten-free in determining which restaurants are completely gluten-free? These are a few tips to keep your restaurant experience as safe as possible.

Research the restaurant

One of the best ways to know if a restaurant is practicing safe handling of gluten-free menu items is to do a little research. Many establishments and their policies can be found online. For example, California Pizza Kitchen’s corporate site informs customers that they have Certified Gluten Free products that are pre-made to be free of gluten. For those with a true wheat allergy or extreme reactions to cross contamination with gluten, they can’t guarantee that co-mingling with their other vast menu options won’t accidentally occur, although they make every effort to prevent such occurrences. This is usually the case with other chain restaurants that serve gluten-free options.

Related: Gluten-Free Pizza Crust Recipe

Restaurants that are completely gluten-free offer more options for those requiring the strict avoidance of gluten. Maui Brick Oven in Kihei, Hawaii was started by two chefs whose own CD diagnoses prompted them to start a restaurant where great taste and gluten-free were not mutually exclusive. The entire restaurant is void of gluten so cross-contamination is never an issue.

Ask questions

If you are ever unsure of a restaurant’s gluten-free policy, it is important to speak up. Most restaurants with gluten-free items are used to answering questions, but if the wait-staff doesn’t assuage your concerns, talk with the chef — they should be well-versed in food handling procedures.

We live in a small town where completely gluten-free restaurants are non-existent. Nearby our home in Harrison, Arkansas is the family-run restaurant, Ugo’s Eatery. After talking with the general manager, we felt comfortable eating the gluten-free pizza option. They had great knowledge of the issues of cross-contamination and let us know that the gluten-free crust they serve is made off-site in an exclusively gluten-free factory. They also showed me that they use different pizza pans and utensils when handling the gluten-free product.

So, as you can see, the gluten-free fad has definitely afforded more options of restaurants for people who need to remove gluten-containing foods from their diets. And should you not get answers you are comfortable with when dining out, don’t eat at those restaurants. It’s better to be safe than sorry, as accidental ingestion of gluten with CD can cause damage to the intestines. If you have CD, just be sure to do your research and ask questions. That is the best way to ensure that your foods are completely safe to eat — aside from cooking at home.

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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition.She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years.Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).