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  • Janice Schroeder
    Janice Schroeder

    Mistakes Restaurants Make In Gluten-Free Dining

      Sometimes the chef goes overboard in the interest of caution, and removes everything that could "possibly" contain anything remotely containing gluten. What I get is a tasteless shadow of the original dish, and resounding disappointment.

    Caption: Image: CC--Andy Montgomery

    Celiac.com 03/08/2019 - How many times have you gone out to dinner and tried to find a gluten-free meal that wouldn't make you sick? How many times have you eaten that gluten-free meal, only to think, "gee, I wouldn't feed this to my dog?"

    This leads to the question, do restaurants that serve gluten-free menu items taste test their offerings? If not, why not? Why do they think that people with gluten-intolerance or celiac disease want to eat cardboard? These and other questions continue to baffle me.

    There are a few things that restaurants could do better. The gluten-free wave is sweeping the nation. Restaurants need to learn how to swim, or be swept away with the tide. These are some of my pet peeves when it comes to dining out gluten-free.

    Running out of gluten free items, such as hamburger rolls or bread

    It is really easy to buy really good packaged gluten-free hamburger buns or bread. How many times have you been told that the only gluten-free offering is a lettuce wrap? Really? If I want to eat salad, I will order salad!

    Offering inedible gluten-free items

    Have you ever had a really awful gluten-free muffin in a restaurant, or for that matter, on a cruise ship? I am sure that if the kitchen staff tried these stale pieces of sawdust, they would not want to eat them. Why do they think someone with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance would?

    Trying and Failing to do it themselves (especially with dessert)

    Believe me, I really do appreciate the effort a chef makes to give me a gluten-free dessert other than sorbet or a fruit plate. I had a wonderful experience on a cruise a few years ago. The chef attempted to make me a gluten and dairy free cake (I am also dairy intolerant). It was really great. Unfortunately, they waited until the last night of the cruise, and I could only eat one piece of it. But I have to admit, by that time I was really tired of eating fruit plates. It's not that difficult to buy a ready made gluten-free cake, cookie or muffin mix and give us some options.

    Removing the "offending" gluten-free items until there's nothing left

    How many times have you ordered a wonderful sounding dish, only to receive a pale, gluten-free comparison? Believe me, before I go out to eat, I study the allergen menu really closely and try to find something that will not be entirely ruined if it is made gluten-free. I am not always successful.

    Sometimes the chef goes overboard in the interest of caution, and removes everything that could "possibly" contain anything remotely containing gluten. What I get is a tasteless shadow of the original dish, and resounding disappointment.

    I don't order certain items, like crab cakes, because even though gluten-free breadcrumbs actually exist, it wouldn't occur to the chef to try to use them.

    Improperly trained staff

    I am sure you have all seen the eye-roll and the deer in the headlights look of waitstaff who panic, or sneer at the mere mention that you are gluten-free. Nor do they have a clue about menu items that might contain gluten. It might be obvious to those of us who live this life everyday, but the waitstaff and kitchen staff don't seem to know.

    It is imperative that waitstaff and kitchen staff know what contains gluten, and what does not. I can't even count how many times I have gotten sick because I was told something was "fine".

    Cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods

    If you think your restaurant has a dedicated area to handle your gluten-free meal, you might be sadly mistaken. Using the same fryer, using the same pasta water, using the same utensils; these are just some of the things that are going on in the kitchen.

    It is far easier for a busy kitchen staff to take shortcuts than to properly prepare a gluten-free meal. I have also noticed that the attention to detail goes up with the price-tag of the meal in question. You are likely to get more attention in a fine-dining restaurant than in a small mom and pop owned one. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. You are also more likely to get "glutened" on a busy night, as opposed to a slow one.

    In Conclusion

    I know in my heart that as the numbers of gluten-intolerant diners grows, so will the improvement of our collective dining experience. My love for dining out has waned since I became gluten-intolerant. I find I can make better food at home. I know this is not an option for everyone. But why should gluten-free be a tradeoff?



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    On 3/11/2019 at 1:43 PM, Guest Kathy said:

    I would like to explain to restaurant owners that serving steak, salad, and a baked potato does not qualify as "having a gluten-free menu."  Simply because these things do not contain gluten, does not mean you cater to gluten-intolerant customers.  Also, there are many people with Celiac who (like me) cannot eat corn.  Corn has been shown to have more gluten than wheat, so it is not unusual for Celiac patients to abstain from eating corn.  Therefore, for those restaurants that do have a dedicated gluten-free menu, non-corn items should be listed as well. 

    Corn has gluten? WTF?

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    2 hours ago, ballyhoo said:

    Corn has gluten? WTF?

    Different protein, it does not trigger celiac disease. Corn Gluten is different than wheat, barley, rye gluten, the amino acids composing wheat, barley and rye are very similar (oats are close), but corn and rice gluten has a different structure. Some people also have issues with it but the gut and autoimmune damage is not present. IE I got an allergy to the corn protein, but that is different them a celiac reaction that attacks my organs, many get food intolerances or sensitivities and corn is a semi-common one. 

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    7 hours ago, ballyhoo said:

    Corn has gluten? WTF?

    Of course not!  Sometimes people like to stir things up.  

    In the case of “ corn gluten” - sometimes you hear this phrase but the only gluten a Celiac is concerned with is the kind in wheat , rye and barley.  In food, the term “ gluten” refers to these 3 grains.  

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    I am 63 years old and was finally diagnosed with Celiac two years ago. I had the most wonderful experience in Mexico of all places, at the Restaurant at the Sirena del Sol about 4 km north of Cabo San Lucas. The Head Chef addressed all my concerns personally. He even came by our table a couple nights later and comped our desert. All their deserts are made from scratch using gluten-free flour. Best sea bass I have had ever!

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  • About Me

    I started blogging (https://glutenenvy.blog) in May 2015 after suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) for over fifteen years. I discovered that by eliminating gluten, then dairy, from my diet decreased my IBS symptoms significantly.  I also developed nut allergies two years ago.

    I have since become an expert and advocate for a gluten-free and dairy-free lifestyle, to support and help those who have struggled with side effects and health issues related to both gluten and dairy foods.

    Blogger, recipe developer, product tester, reviewer and guest blogger, I continue to help others while maintaining my gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free lifestyle. I hope to continue to grow and evolve and to be able to spread the word about the challenges and the rewards of a gluten-free and dairy-free lifestyle.

  • Related Articles

    Scott Adams
    This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2002 edition of Celiac.com's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity.
    The results of my latest Celiac.com survey indicate that 71 percent of 983 respondents dine out less often now than before they went on a gluten-free diet.  Further, 74 percent of those who do eat out are now more nervous and uncomfortable during their dining experience, and 50 percent of them felt this way because it is either too much trouble to explain their diet, or because they felt that restaurant employees are in too big of a hurry to worry about their special needs.  As a resident of San Francisco, a city that supposedly has enough table space in its restaurants to seat everyone in the city at once, these results disappoint me.  Not because I eat out less due to my gluten-restricted diet, or am uncomfortable when I do so, but because I don’t believe that anyone with celiac disease who is armed with the proper knowledge needs to fear or avoid eating out.
    In order to eat out safely the first thing that you must check before going into a restaurant is your attitude.  If you are the type of person who is too embarrassed to send your meal back because they didn’t follow your instructions or if you are the opposite type and are so demanding that you often annoy the staff—you will need to find some middle ground.  It took me a while to reach this point, but I can now go into a restaurant with confidence and look at getting a good gluten-free meal there as a personal challenge that begins when I walk through their door. 
    Upon entering a restaurant the first thing that you need to notice is how busy the place is, including how stressed out the workers seem to be—the more stressed out they are, the more tactful you will need to be to get what you want—a safe meal.  One rule that has served me well in all situations is to keep it simple—both your order and how you place it.  I never try to give a scientific discourse on celiac disease to restaurant workers, as I have found that it only serves to frustrate or confuse them.  Tell them only what they need to know—that you have an allergy to wheat (using the term gluten will typically lead back into long explanations) and need to make sure that your dish is wheat-free.  I wouldn’t tell them that you’ll get violently ill if ANY wheat ends up in your meal, as some people recommend, because they probably won’t want to serve you.  I also wouldn’t go into detail about hidden ingredients that contain wheat—it will take too long to explain and you will again run the risk of scaring them into not serving you. 
    I usually don’t approach the chef unless it’s very slow because he is probably the busiest person in a restaurant.  When it’s busy I always ask the waiter to give the chef special order instructions, both verbally and in writing on the order ticket.  Rather than try to educate the staff and make them experts on gluten, it’s far more efficient if you are the one who becomes more educated with regard to the dishes you like to eat so that you can order them in a manner that will ensure your safety.  I strongly believe that your diet is ultimately your responsibility and not a restaurant’s (with the exception of any mistakes that they might make).
    The key to ordering a gluten-free meal is your beforehand knowledge of its ingredients and how it is prepared.  Most people who have cooked have a basic understanding of how certain dishes are prepared, and how they could contain gluten.  Even if you aren’t a cook you might have had the meal you want to order enough times to know something about its ingredients and preparation methods.  You need only to know enough about the meal to ask the right questions so that you can alter any preparation methods that might cause it to contain gluten.  For example, whenever I order a salad I always tell them no croutons, and to bring me olive oil and vinegar for dressing.  If I order fried rice in a Chinese restaurant I order it without soy sauce, or I give them my own bottle to cook with.  If you order something properly and it arrives incorrectly, send it back!  I recently ordered Chinese food with my family and did everything right—I told them about my wheat allergy, gave them my bottle of soy sauce, and told the waitress that I wanted to make sure that there was no wheat flour in or on anything that I ordered (but that corn starch is fine—if you don’t clarify this point it might unnecessarily eliminate or alter many Chinese dishes).  When our food arrived the chicken I ordered was breaded.  After inquiring about it I found out that they used wheat flour so I sent it back, the waitress apologized, and it was no big deal.
    I recommend that you purchase and read basic cookbooks for the types of foods that you like to eat so that you can place your order with confidence.  For example, I own several cookbooks for my favorite cuisines, including ones that cover Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, Indian and American foods.  I typically look over the relevant cookbook before I go to a particular restaurant so that I can get an idea of what I want to order and how to order it.  The more up-front knowledge you have about how the dishes you like are prepared, the easier it will be for you to order them in a manner that ensures that they are safe.  Having these books around is also great should you begin to cook more at home, which 65 percent of my survey respondents already do, and this is something that I also highly recommend.
    Generally speaking I try to avoid large chain restaurants as much as possible because many of their items are highly processed and contain a huge number of ingredients.  Their employees typically have no idea what’s in their foods.  I think that many of the survey respondents are with me on this, as 70 percent of them also eat less processed and junk foods due to their gluten-free diets.  I only eat at chain restaurants if I am able to check their Web sites in advance for safe items, and if I can’t do this I am extra careful about what I order.  I try to eat at smaller, family-owned establishments because they usually know the ingredients and preparation methods for all of their dishes.  Additionally, authentic ethnic foods such as Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean typically use little wheat, so I lean more towards these types of foods when I eat out. 
    The transition to a gluten-free diet isn’t easy—74 percent of survey respondents thought it was difficult or very difficult.  Like many things in life, it took some up-front work on your part to be able to make the successful transition to a gluten-free diet, and the same is true for eating out.  I like to think that what you put into it, you will get out of it—the more you learn about cuisine and its various methods of preparation, the more pleasant and care-free your dining experiences will be, and the more likely you will be to get a safe meal.  Life’s too short to not enjoy the basic pleasure of eating out, so the next time you get the urge, do your homework first, then take charge of your meal at the restaurant!


    Jefferson Adams
    Celiac.com 01/03/2014 - The United State Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has clarified what their recent gluten-free rule means for restaurants. When the FDA announced its gluten-free labeling standard in August, the agency said that, for restaurants, “any use of an FDA-defined food labeling claim (such as “fat free” or “low cholesterol”) on restaurant menus should be consistent with the respective regulatory definitions.
    The agency noted this same approach would now be followed with respect to “gluten-free” claims made in restaurants and other retail food service establishments.
    The FDA's updated Question & Answer, #9 under ‘Labeling’, now reads:
    FDA recognizes that compliance with the gluten-free rule in processed foods and food served in restaurants is important for the health of people with celiac disease.
    In August 2013, FDA issued final rule that established a federal definition of the term ‘”gluten-free” for food manufacturers that voluntarily label FDA-regulated foods as “gluten-free.”
    This definition is intended to provide a reliable way for people with celiac disease to avoid gluten, and we expect that restaurants’ use of “gluten-free” labeling will be consistent with the federal definition.
    The deadline for compliance with the rule is not until August 2014, although we have encouraged the food industry to bring its labeling into compliance with the new definition as soon as possible.
    Given the public health significance of “gluten-free” labeling, we encourage the restaurant industry to move quickly to ensure that its use of “gluten-free” labeling is consistent with the federal definition and look forward to working with the industry to support their education and outreach to restaurants.
    In addition, state and local governments play an important role in oversight of restaurants. We expect to work with our state and local government partners with respect to gluten-free labeling in restaurants. We will consider enforcement action as needed, alone or with other agencies, to protect consumers.
    For more information:
    ACDA Statement on Gluten-free Regulation Regulation from the Federal Register FDA: Gluten-Free Labeling FDA: Gluten-Free Labeling Final Rule Q&A Consumer Update

    Jefferson Adams
    Celiac.com 05/16/2014 - More than half of U.S. chain restaurants plan to expand their gluten-free menus in the next year, according to a national menu price survey by restaurant supply-chain co-op SpenDifference.
    "Operators recognize that a growing number of customers have health-related dietary restrictions, and they are revamping their menus to include choices for them, as well as for those who simply want more healthful choices,” said SpenDifference president and CEO Maryanne Rose.
    Currently, 55 percent of restaurants surveyed serve gluten-free menu items. According to the new survey, the majority of those businesses will be expanding that selection in the coming year.
    The survey supports projections that indicate that the demand for gluten-free menu items “will be with us for a long time," said Rose.
    The findings are included in SpenDifference's third menu price survey, which for the first time asked chain-restaurant operators about their plans to offer more healthful menu options.
    Read more at: Fastcasual.com.

    Melissa Reed
    Celiac.com 07/24/2014 - People that have celiac disease know one of the main concerns is avoiding gluten when they have meals. Their second biggest concern is the possible co-mingling of ingredients that can contaminate otherwise gluten-free food! So how do you eat at restaurants when you have celiac and still have peace of mind?
    Here is how:
    Before you are to go out to a restaurant call ahead and ask for the manager, find out if they do offer gluten-free meals that are carefully prepared for people with food allergy (If you are unable to call ahead go online and look the restaurant up to see if they offer a gluten-free menu or gluten-free meal selections, if need be email them). Also ask if the restaurant prepares gluten-free meals in a separate area, and if the restaurant uses different cooking utensils for gluten-free meal preparation. When you arrive at the restaurant that you have confirmed has gluten-free meals, let your server know you have a "Gluten Allergy" (ok, you can use different terms, and this isn't correct, but it conveys necessity instead of trend) and must eat gluten-free. Ask for a gluten-free menu, if they did not offer one to you. If you feel comfortable ask to speak with the manager or chef at your table, so they know that you have a medical need for a gluten-free diet. Let your favorite restaurants know that you want gluten-free meal selections and a gluten-free menu if they do not offer that yet. Do not be afraid to ask! Also, online there are cards you can print out and take to restaurants that you can give to server, manager or chefs to let them know that you are in need of a gluten-free diet. Some restaurants are now getting trained for gluten-free food preparation through National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) and Great Kitchens, so that all the staff is fully prepared and educated on how to handle safe preparation of meals for celiac and gluten intolerant individuals.
    Talk about peace of mind; if a restaurant has had the gluten-free food training, know you are safe to eat gluten-free meals there!

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