Gluten 101

Rule #1: Always go to the original source to determine if a food is safe for you.

Rule #2: When dining out, be aware of how your food is handled.

Rule #3: Plan and prepare in advance.

Golden Rule: When in doubt, don’t eat it!

Rule #1: Use a reliable source, and your own judgment when deciding if a food is safe for you.

Why is it so important to rely on an original source, and use my own judgment to decide if a food is safe for me?

Currently, there is no FDA regulation for gluten. That means companies are NOT required to label gluten containing ingredients on their products.

It is important to note that wheat is, of course, glutenous, but gluten is not wheat. Wheat is considered a top 8 allergen (along with peanuts, soy, etc.) and therefore is required to be listed on a label. But just because wheat is not listed, does not mean the product is gluten free.

So if the label says “gluten free” is this true? Not Yet.

The FDA does require that if a company labels their product as “gluten free” this statement must be true, but the standards for “true” are not defined and therefore are not reliable. The FDA is working to clear this up, see post here.

If there is no wheat, barley, or rye on the label, am I safe? Not Necessarily.

Unfortunately, many naturally gluten free products are processed in facilities that also process gluten containing foods. Therefore, your non-glutenous food can be contaminated during manufacturing processes. Also, many labels may have vague ingredients such “caramel color” or “natural flavors”. These terms often refer to ingredients that are safe, but could indicate the presence of gluten.

How should I find out if a product is gluten free? 

Well you are already in the right place! No, not my blog- but on the Internet. The quickest and most reliable way to find out if a product is gluten free is to check the companies website. If their website does not tell you, you should call their customer service line, and ask a representative for help.

But what about relying on the message boards from other celiac sufferers that provide lists of gluten free foods?

Those boards, although helpful and well-intentioned, can be misleading. Because most companies produce an array of products, it is hard for message boards, and personal websites or blogs, to stay up to date on companies manufacturing processes and ingredients lists. Also, because of the lack of FDA regulation, a company does not have to alert consumers when a recipe or manufacturing method has been changed. Here’s an example:

Type into your search engine: “are Reese’s gluten free?”

Your search results will find include many posts that say Reese’s are in fact gluten free. There are an overwhelming number of posts that suggests this, but Reese’s still seem to make me sick. I wondered how this could be, and did some digging. I discovered that Hershey’s, the distributor of all Reese’s products, will NOT put in writing that Reese’s are gluten free, and will only read you their current list of gluten free products over the telephone. This is because Hershey’s manufactures an array of delicious candy, many of which contain gluten. Their manufacturing processes change constantly, and therefore they can not guarantee that Reese’s are not contaminated by their other glutenous foods.

The moral of the story: rely on an original source, and use your own judgment to decide if a food is safe for you.

#2: When dining out: Be aware of where your food is being picked, processed, chopped, washed, baked, grilled, contained…

Some restaurants, such as Legal Sea Foods and Papa Razzi, have great company wide policies that educate all of their staff members on the proper ways to handle allergy orders. At these restaurants the kitchens are VERY aware of the issue of cross contamination, and ensure that your food is handled by someone wearing clean gloves, on a clean surface, using clean tools (this is ideal).Many restaurants have gluten free menus or other ways on accommodating their gluten free patrons. What is important to know is that all restaurants have their own cooks, waitresses, managers, and staff – all with a varying knowledge of your allergy needs.

Unfortunately, some restaurants may have gluten free options on their menu, or may say that they can accommodate for your allergy, but are not fully aware of the dangers of cross contamination. For example:

I was in NYC visiting my boyfriend last summer and as 6:00 approached, we did as we always do, and turned to the Internet for some help locating a gluten free place to eat. I was ecstatic to find a listing for a pizza place around the corner from his apartment, and we proceeded to call and order a large gluten free margherita pizza. When we arrived to pick up our order I was surprised to find a very average, by-the -slice, pizza joint – with one large pizza oven in the back. To my disappointment, I saw them remove my “gluten free pizza” from the pizza oven, using the large metal spatula that the other pizzas were using as well. Worse than that, my gluten free dough was purposely placed on top of flour that they use to prevent the pizza dough from sticking to the oven. Needless to say, I could not eat our pizza.

Although this is an obvious example, there are many less obvious threats of contamination – such as a waitress delivering your meal on a tray where it rubs up against your friends’ sandwich, or a chef forgetting to change his gloves before mixing your salad.

The moral of the story is to research a restaurants policy for allergens and gluten before heading out to eat, and once you are there, always be clear with your server about your dietary needs.

Nervous to ask about gluten free practices during dinner? Need some advice on the questions to ask your server? Click here for a post about communicating your needs to your server.

#3: Plan your meals in advance

Have you ever gone to the mall with your kids only to gaze at them with envy as they gorge themselves in the food court on McDonalds Happy Meals and Wok Kitchen General Tso’s chicken? Or have your friends forced your cab driver to stop mid way home from Faneuil Hall to get out at the Boston House of Pizza because its only 1:30am and there’s still 30 precious minutes left to order pizza in the city? And do your memories of the dancing and partying soon vanish as you being to resent your gluten loving friends and drool yourself into a pool of jealousy as they dump their order of curly fries and ranch straight onto there 1/4-pie-sized slice of late night pizza?

Well, clearly I do, and if you have not had these feelings of envy and resentment then please, enlighten me on your saintly mindset for I am still jealous of all the worlds’ pizza – eaters.

For those of you who can relate to this jealousy, this is my advice: SNACKS!

If you are prepared for your day with delicious snacks in tow, you can decrease your jealousy, and also decrease your chances of desperately justifying eating something you aren’t 100% sure is safe for you.

If you plan ahead and realize that your afternoon adventure may run over into dinner time, be sure you put a bag of Kettle Chips or a banana in your car just in case. I keep the fun size packs of almonds in my car, and always have a few rice-granola bars in my purse.

Now this next tip may seem like poor advice, but I also suggest treating yourself to slightly unhealthy snacks when you are in that hungry limbo-time between lunch and dinner. If you’re craving something you can’t have (like a steak and cheese sub or lasagna…) you probably will not be satisfied with the substitution of dry roasted almonds and a nectarine. instead of torturing yourself, try treating yourself with a hold-over snack like Trader Joes Cheese Puffs or Buffalo Blue Kettle Chips.

Does your party lifestyle often lead you to late night eating? Click here for a post on my favorite late night gluten tip.

And last, but not least…
The Golden Rule: When in doubt, don’t eat it!

When you want to eat something you are not 100% sure about please stop, and think: What if this is glutenous? If it is, is it worth eating right now?

Hopefully the answer will be “no, this is not worth eating, because feeling healthy is way better than the taste of this food”… the answer may also be “no, this is not worth it, but this sucks”… Aim for the former.

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