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Why Many Restaurants Should Not Offer Gluten-Free Menu Options...Yet

Image: CC--James Kim 11/28/2016 - The title of my article might seem a little shocking to most of the celiac community. Why wouldn't I want restaurants to offer high quality, safe meals to those who suffer from celiac disease or from non-celiac gluten intolerance so they could also enjoy dining out with their family and friends like everyone else? It's not that I don't want restaurants to offer gluten-free options: I do. But, I want them to be high quality, high integrity, and offered by a properly trained and knowledgeable staff. Otherwise, I truly don't think your establishment should bother offering gluten-free options to your diners and guests.

The truth is that genuinely gluten-free dishes should be more than just replacing a bun, or using a corn or rice version of pasta in your dishes. Claiming to be "gluten-free" or "celiac-friendly" needs to go much further than just claiming such or simply swapping a product for your gluten-free diner.

Without the benefit of training and education, many restaurants are not going to take into account any cross-contamination factors such as where the food is prepared, or who has touched it (and what did they touch last?) or where the plate was prepped and cleaned. It doesn't consider the air-borne flour coating almost every surface of a bakery or kitchen, and, it certainly doesn't involve investigating ingredients in the finished dishes for "hidden" sources of wheat, rye, or barley whose derivatives (such as malt or "flavorings") might be lurking around the kitchen and in prepared foods.

There are so many sources of cross-contamination that are simply not explored, or may not even be known by a dining establishment. Unless a typical restaurant or bakery staff is well-versed and knowledgeable in what to look for, the questions to ask, and the proper procedures that will ensure a safe dining experience for gluten-free guests, and until all of the sources of cross contamination are explored and eliminated, it is highly doubtful that a gluten-free dish is truly gluten-free at all.

With the FDA's recent updates to the gluten-free standard, restaurants, bakeries and dining establishments need to start following suit. Anyone offering a gluten-free meal should be aware that not only are their customers expecting adherence to the 20ppm of gluten (or less) standard that has been accepted as the standard for certifying something is gluten-free, but that the FDA expects their dining establishment to live up to that standard.

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As with any product that comes to market with a claim, restaurant menus are subject to abide by the same guidelines. For instance, if you claim something is "reduced fat", then it better, by all means, be reduced fat from the original version of the same dish. The same principal applies to gluten-free dishes with the standards taking full affect in the summer months of 2014. If your restaurant claims it is gluten-free, then it better be gluten-free, and not just "assumed" gluten-free.

Living in blissful ignorance can not be an option for restaurants or for any establishment offering gluten-free products. As with any other food allergy or intolerance (FAI) there can be dire consequences for not adhering to procedures for safe preparation and service of food. Not to mention the damage that can be done to an establishment's reputation should the word get out that their integrity or food knowledge is questionable.

Personally, I believe restaurants have a lot to gain in terms of offering gluten-free meals, or menu options in their establishment. I believe that restaurants who establish—and enforce- gluten-free procedures to eliminate cross contamination, accidental exposure, and provide training to their staff can benefit greatly in terms of business growth and satisfied repeat guests and their referrals from gluten-free diners to both gluten-free dieters and "traditional" diners alike.

Gluten-free diners, just like all diners, place a great deal of faith and trust in people who prepare their meals at restaurants, diners, bakeries and cafes. With this great measure of trust being established at the first encounter with a restaurant guest, it pays to educate everyone from host/hostess to head chef on the proper way to handle gluten-free meals, and for that matter, all FAI's.

That is why I recommend that until you are completely certain that your food is gluten-free, and that your staff is in complete compliance with your establishment's gluten-free policy, it is probably better that your establishment NOT offer gluten-free menu options. Those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease would appreciate your honesty and your integrity in doing so. The good news is that we'll be willing to become your dinner guests when you can honestly say that your kitchen staff, servers, management team, and even your host or hostess are educated, trained, and 100% on-board with providing a safe gluten-free experience for all of us.

Trust and integrity go a long, long way for those of us with special dietary needs. welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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8 Responses:

Bruce Danziger
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said this on
30 Nov 2016 6:39:35 AM PST
I understand the point of the blog and IMO it has great intentions. But I cannot agree unless you are strictly talking about labeling. I myself have Celiac and cross contamination is and has been something that I have to deal with multiple times a day. But if all food establishments went strictly by the book, I might not ever eat out again. They just wouldn't do it. I would hate my life. Instead I have learned to manage it. It's not fun but you get used to it and I get to eat some great food along the way. And yes, occasionally, there is that mishap where everything goes south. At that point my choices are to discuss with the restaurant to help them make things better in the future and I can decide whether I ever go back again. I also have the option based on such discussions to let people know this is not a place to be trusted when it comes to GF. Over the last 5 years, I have helped a number of restaurants improve the GF experience for myself and others and I have also found places I will never go again. As for what I do, I read reviews. Assuming they are available you can get a good sense where not to go. Then I always talk to the manager. I ask how they deal with the gluten free issue. If they say nothing free here...I leave. This happened to me at a Chinese restaurant. They had no clue what I was talking about. You can quickly tell if a restaurant has no clue. I always talk to the waiter and even if they write gluten free on the order, I ask them to double check with the chef. But, over time you find restaurants that you can trust. I will say that most restaurants I have eaten out at I have never had an issue and I eat out often. Then there are the restaurants that I have encouraged to get separate toasters, cut the bread with separate knives away from the rest of the food, change a few ingredients here and there, setup dedicated fryers where they never mix the oil if they clean/filter it at night. Optimally, I would love it if all restaurants would do proper training but I live in the real world. It´s not that simple. And yes, optimally truly GF restaurants would be the best and it´s a great goal but realistically that is way in the future if at all and I am alive now.

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said this on
02 Dec 2016 12:55:33 PM PST
I completely agree with this article! Eating out is NOT a necessity, but keeping your gut healthy is. Anytime you are exposed to cross contamination you are doing damage whether you have symptoms or not. This damage takes time to heal. If you are being exposed on a regular basis then your gut is never going to heal. I know life gets crazy and its hard to always prepare a meal. I work 50 hours a week, have a family of four that all eat gluten free out of necessity, we don't eat out at all. In the past I have trusted restaurants that had great gluten free reviews and wonderful policies and procedures in place. Mistakes will always happen and I have been served gluten many times that comes out labeled gluten free. I no longer trust any kitchen with my families health but my own!

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said this on
05 Dec 2016 4:07:25 PM PST
Hard to argue with this. I would love it if every restaurant offered truly GF food, but that's not happening in the US soon. Then again, I just spent a week in Sydney, Australia -- where real, good numerous GF choices were on nearly every menu, and nearly every staff person I spoke to seemed to be well-trained in GF issues -- and truly happy to accommodate. This is all just part of the scene there -- not government mandate. Makes you realize how much of the US's celiac-unfriendly environment is really just a matter of culture and habit and unwillingness to learn new things...rn

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said this on
06 Dec 2016 4:04:15 AM PST
Indeed, what is the point of having a GF menu if it is not? It is false advertisement and should be illegal. For the folks who are GF for the fun of it, or to get attention, or because they think it is healthier, great, just don't say it is GF. As it is now, they can use that GF menu to raise the price because it is "GF", using our illness to make a buck. That is the rub! If a restaurant wants to say it is GF, then they need to be certified GF and CD safe; the law needs to be changed.

Tracy Gibson
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said this on
02 Jan 2017 4:15:39 AM PST
I agree with you completely. I always wonder what the point of offering gf on menus is. Once you explain to the staff what your specific gluten problems are and their response is either: telling you they do not guarantee that they do not prep or cook the food in it´s own gf area OR they really do not understand what gluten free really means. I think the fad diet people have ruined it for us celiacs!

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said this on
06 Dec 2016 9:12:57 AM PST
What a perfect world it would be if we as celiacs can go into a restaurant and know for sure that our meal is truly gluten free. There are practically no "all gluten free restaurants" out there and the two that I know in NYC are exorbitantly expensive. I believe that I have not completely healed because I do eat out occasionally, and while I believe the food itself has no gluten, somewhere along the gets cross contaminated. The less I eat out, the better I feel. It's kind of sad to be so restricted but our health is more important than a meal away from home. Let's stay strong and try to help each other in this forum.

Rebecca Goldfeder
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said this on
13 Dec 2016 12:30:20 PM PST
I agree with the author that it isn't possible to guarantee a gluten free meal in a restaurant that isn't a dedicated gluten free facility. I have worked in them most of my life so I know. My local grocery store (Wegmans) will label their prepared foods as "made without gluten containing ingredients" and then you can decide how much risk you are willing to take. I think eventually more establishments will take this approach but until then you have to assume everything on a "gluten free" menu means made without gluten containing ingredients.

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said this on
27 Dec 2016 12:47:40 AM PST
I agree with this article completely. My name is Katon Claborn and I am a manager at an establishment that proudly serves hyper-local ingredients, and does so while catering to any dietary concern a guest may have. Our restaurant is Odd Duck in Austin TX. I will say, it is not an easy task to fully train a staff on how to cater to not only celiac conditions, but other allergies and intolerances or preferences that our guests may have. It takes time, investigation and research, as well as very specific questions that must be posed to said guests. It is a labor of love and I cannot speak to other cities in the US, but here in Austin it is commonplace for restaurants such as ours to take these precautions and ensure that everyone, no matter how severe the condition, be able to enjoy dining out safely and without feeling as though they are a burden. It saddens me that this is not the case throughout the industry, but I believe this is something that can be changed through teaching and leadership in the industry. i cannot say I know how anyone with these conditions feel, however, I and many others I know empathize. Please know that if ever you are in Austin it would be my sincere pleasure to make sure you are safely taken care of as though you were a guest in our home and feel free to share my name and this message with whomever may come our way.

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That is very helpful. Thank you so much.

I would read it as ?high?. In any case, you were positive on the TTG and the DGP. You only need one positive. I had pretty severe intestinal damage and never even had a positive on the EMA or the TTG even when they were re-run several times during follow-up visits.

Thank you! That does help. I was just confused about the ?negative? under the EMA Titer when my level says ?1:40 high?. Any insight there? Just wondering if it?s further confirming or denying? I first thought confirming.