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3 Steps You Can Take to Avoid Being 'Glutened'

The bottom line: Eating out in restaurants when you have celiac disease or gluten allergies means taking a leap of faith – or playing a game of Russian roulette – depending on your outlook.

When someone else is preparing your food, especially in a kitchen where gluten-containing foods are also prepared, there is always a risk that gluten can get into your meal, no matter what the menu says. The best strategies to mitigate your risk of getting glutened while dining out are to be well-educated about foods that contain gluten, be aware of cross-contamination pitfalls in the kitchen and to communicate clearly with your server and kitchen staff.

1. Know your gluten-free foods.

Never assume that people who work in restaurants, cooking and serving food all day, are actually educated about what gluten is and where it is found. As a reminder, aside from wheat and its derivatives, gluten is found in other grains such as barley, rye and oats that are not labeled gluten-free (GF). Whole barley grains are often found in vegetable and beef soups, while barley malt often adds sweetness to breakfast cereals, chocolate candies and desserts.

At a popular diner in Salt Lake City, I enjoyed a great gluten-free meal of chicken enchiladas made with corn tortillas. However, at the end of the meal the waitress cheerfully invited me to try my husband’s chocolate malt pudding as the kitchen staff had assured her it was gluten-free. My impression was that while the staff understood that wheat was off-limits on the gluten-free diet, they did not get that barley malt also contains gluten.

2. Be aware of cross-contamination pitfalls.

Unfortunately, gluten-free menus are not always accurate when they fail to take into account the potential for cross-contamination. Normally, plain French fries could be considered gluten-free and are sometimes listed as such on GF menus. If the fries are cooked in the same oil as breaded chicken tenders and onion rings, however, they are no longer safe. This is also a consideration for fresh tortilla chips which might be fried in the same oil as other menu items that contain gluten. Always ask your waitperson about dedicated fryers. After asking about it, I once had a server admit that the tortilla chips were no longer gluten-free because a new kitchen worker accidentally deep-fried a burrito made with a flour tortilla in the chip fryer earlier in the day.

I have learned the hard way to quiz my server or waitperson about the gluten-free status of  cooking surfaces in the kitchen, especially when it comes to grills on which foods like pancakes, eggs, hash browns and grilled sandwiches are often all prepared together. I once got very sick from eating the hash browns listed as gluten-free on the menu of a national chain restaurant. A few months later, at a different chain restaurant, the kitchen staff was very accommodating and cleaned off a portion of the grill for me before preparing some grilled chicken. By happenstance, my server also had celiac disease and understood the drill.

On a related note, when pizza with GF crust is advertised on the menu, always ask the waitperson to ascertain whether that crust is put in a dedicated GF pan. Putting a GF crust in a pan where a regular pizza once sat defeats the purpose.

In other cases, the potential for cross-contamination can be more obscure. At a crab house in Maryland, my server turned out to be a registered nurse who was moonlighting as a waitress. Fortunately, she knew about celiac disease and gluten and explained that she had sent back my serving of steamed vegetables when she learned that it had been cooked with water that had been used to boil pasta. I was extremely lucky that evening! As Maryland’s famous crabs are usually steamed in beer, I thought I was playing it safe by ordering my usual steak, baked potato and steamed veggies. As a dine with celiac disease, I learned that you truly can never be 100 percent assured that your meal is going to be safe.

3. Speak up!

The best way to eliminate some risk of getting glutened is by communicating your gluten-free needs clearly and directly to your server or waitperson. Don’t apologize or make light of it — explain to your server that you have celiac disease and that you cannot have any foods that contain or come into contact with gluten.

At first I thought people might not understand what celiac disease was and so I would say that I had a food allergy.

Later I decided that it’s important to educate people about celiac disease and how serious it is. Also, just hearing the word “disease” might make some servers take you more seriously.

I also recommend asking your server again about the GF status of your meal after they bring it to you. Sometimes mistakes are made and there is no harm in double-checking. Recently I pointed out to a waitperson that my supposedly GF pizza looked awfully similar to my husband’s regular one. The server checked with the kitchen and it turned out that the gluten-free status of my order was not communicated properly. The pizzeria not only gave me a fresh GF pizza, but went the extra mile and sent me home with a complimentary one as well.

Another way to reduce your risk of getting glutened at a restaurant is to speak with the chef or head cook directly.  I have called restaurants in advance and spoken with the chef to ascertain which menu items are safer choices.  Obviously, it’s better to call at a time of day when the restaurant is less likely to be busy. Some restaurants take their dedication to providing diners with allergen-free and gluten-free meals to the next level by having the chef speak to diners in person. The Rainforest Café is just one example of a restaurant with this policy. Given the rise of celiac disease and food allergies in young diners, this policy makes a lot of sense.

Given the risks involved, simply avoiding restaurant dining altogether may seem like an option to some on the gluten-free diet. For many, however, that is simply not a realistic choice. For those who enjoy an occasional meal out or are traveling, there are steps you can take to help reduce your risk of getting glutened in restaurants. Be informed, be observant and above all, be ready to communicate with restaurant staff. Bon appétit!

Getty Image by bgton