In August 2014, the FDA released some packaging guidelines for gluten-free foods. According to the FDA, to carry the “gluten-free” label, foods can contain a concentration of gluten protein not to exceed 20 ppm (parts per million), which is the minimum measurable amount and a concentration that even people with celiac disease can tolerate.
Although the regulations will help people to interpret product packages that they might purchase at a grocery store, they don’t help people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance who are dining in restaurants.
The FDA encourages restaurants to comply with its guidelines, but it doesn’t require them to follow strict guidelines before labeling their dishes “gluten-free.” Even restaurants that try to provide gluten-free items in good faith might not be delivering a truly gluten-free menu. The demands of living a gluten-free life are difficult and might require the help of someone who has studied to become a professional nutritionist. Fortunately, even when you’re dining out, these simple guidelines will help you to avoid hidden gluten.
If you go to a restaurant and order pizza with a gluten-free crust, the restaurant probably prepares the crust without using wheat-based flours or gluten. However, they might prepare your dough on the same countertop on which they prepare their other pizza crusts, and they probably cook your pizza in the same oven as their typical gluten-filled pizzas. Also, restaurants might fry your French fries in the same vat used to fry breaded items.
It’s not easy for restaurants to redesign their kitchens or to install special gluten-free ovens. One company, Boulder Brands, is designing a bag in which restaurants can bake gluten-free foods without letting the foods become cross-contaminated with gluten from other sources. If this product gains traction, it could help people avoid hidden gluten. Until then, be aware that if your gluten-free food shares surfaces with gluten-filled foods, it’s going to pick up hidden gluten.
Avoid Wheat Impersonators
Despite their well-intentioned efforts to provide their customers with gluten-free pizza crusts, breads, and cakes, many restaurants don’t do a great job when substituting other ingredients for gluten. The taste quality suffers, or they might take shortcuts here and there — including adding a dab of wheat flour or wheat gluten — to improve the texture of their baked goods. You’re safest when you order a gluten-free dish that doesn’t try to impersonate a wheat dish. Try grilled meat, salad, and vegetable dishes that don’t try to transform a bread-like or cake-like dish into something gluten-free.
Question Sauces and Soups
Many soups and sauces rely on flour as a thickening agent. Even when restaurants normally don’t use wheat or gluten in a soup or sauce, a cook might substitute an ingredient occasionally without notifying the manager or the customers. This practice is especially likely if you order the special of the day or some other dish that the restaurant doesn’t prepare on a daily basis. The cooks might put together a sauce or soup made from on-hand ingredients instead of making sure that it’s gluten-free.
Beware of Fillers
Many foods contain fillers called food starch or modified food starch. Because food starch can be made from either wheat or corn, it’s hard to tell from looking at a label whether you might be getting some hidden gluten. Another filler called dextrin, although made from corn in the U.S., might be derived from wheat if the ingredient was manufactured overseas. Some foods that you might want to avoid because they commonly contain food starch and dextrin include:
- Hot dogs
- French fries
- Soy sauce
- Salad dressing (choose oil and vinegar instead)
Ask About Ingredients
Many large restaurants offer gluten-free menus, and they’re experienced at preventing cross-contamination. Also, most restaurants will provide a list of allergens if you request it, but they might be hesitant to disclose their ingredients. In the U.S., you can find celiac-friendly restaurants in the Gluten Free Registry. You can also check for similar resources if you’re traveling overseas.
You Can Still Enjoy Dining Out
As more restaurant owners become aware of celiac disease, and as the FDA improves the labeling of gluten-free foods, you’re going to see more and more options for gluten-free dining out. Until then, don’t feel like you’re stuck at home. You can find plenty of gluten-free alternatives when you’re enjoying a meal on the town.