A gluten-free diet is a diet that excludes the protein gluten, which is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale — a cross between wheat and rye.
Gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines of people with celiac disease, which interferes with the absorption of nutrients. Maintaining a gluten-free diet helps people with celiac disease prevent those complications.
According to the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment in Boston, about two million to three million Americans, or nearly 1% of the population, suffer from celiac disease.
And the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates that another 18 million Americans have a gluten sensitivity, which can manifest in the form of diarrhea, anemia and other symptoms similar to those of celiac disease.
But now millions more who don’t have a specific health issue are eliminating gluten from their diets.
As The Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon points out, nearly 30% of Americans surveyed by market research firm NPD Group Inc. said they are trying to avoid gluten, up from 25.5% three years ago.
As a result, many chain restaurants strive to offer gluten-free food to attract this growing base of customers, but ensuring food is free of gluten is easier said than done. Julie notes that in commercial kitchens, ingredients can easily mix, making restaurants reluctant to promise.
Under a new FDA regulation that goes into effect next year, foods labeled “gluten free” must contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten, but that applies to packaged food.
And while an FDA spokeswoman said the restaurant industry should “move quickly to ensure that its use of ‘gluten-free’ labeling is consistent with the federal definition,” don’t expect restaurants to be adhering to FDA advice any time soon.
After Texas Roadhouse first introduced a gluten-free menu six years ago, they pulled the gluten-free menu a year after some customers claimed menu items weren’t entirely gluten-free, and others reported getting sick.
Last year, Domino’s Pizza introduced a gluten-free pizza crust but admitted that due to the size of its kitchens, it can’t control for cross-contamination.
For those who are understandably reluctant to rely on restaurants to ensure menu items are gluten-free, here are 8 tips on staying gluten-free when dining out.
8 Tips on Staying Gluten-Free at Restaurants
1) Order a Large Salad
Fresh vegetables are all-natural and gluten-free. Stick with a simple oil and vinegar dressing and make sure your salad has no croutons.
2) Just Vegetables
Place a special order for only vegetables sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
3) When Ordering Meat
Fresh meats, fish and poultry are gluten-free but make sure none of the meat has been breaded, batter-coated or marinated, and/or cooked with sauces, breading or other additives. Ask for grilled, broiled, baked, or roasted chicken, seafood, pork, or lean beef.
4) Order Eggs or an Omelet
Eggs, milk and cheese are gluten-free. Milk, half and half, cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, eggs, butter, margarine, and most cheese is gluten free except processed cheese blends. You can order scrambled eggs, bacon and fresh fruit, or a vegetable omelet with potatoes and fresh fruit.
Joy Bauer recommends ordering a plain baked sweet or white potato or a side of plain rice (go for whole-grain brown or wild rice if available). Other safe starch options include polenta, corn grits, beans, and lentils.
6) Safe Gluten-Free Combinations
Baked potato with cheese and vegetables
Corn tortillas with stir-fried meat and vegetables
Stir-fried meat and vegetables with rice and wheat-free tamari
Bean-and-cheese burritos made with corn tortillas
Grilled meat or fish, baked potato and vegetables
7) Request Special Meals From Chef
Bridget Sandorford, a freelance food and culinary writer, suggests requesting a special meal or request alterations to what’s on the menu. Ask for foods to be prepared in different ways (such as grilled, not fried), ask for sauces to be eliminated or substituted, or ask for the creation of something new altogether that uses the ingredients you choose.
8) Contact Restaurants Ahead of Time
You may be able to preview menu options and research ingredient lists. Ask what practices are used in the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination. Ask questions: Do you have a gluten-free menu? What are your gluten-free menu options? Can you tell me what gluten is?
According to the Mayo Clinic, avoid all food and drinks containing:
Barley (malt, malt flavoring and malt vinegar are usually made from barley)
Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)
Avoiding wheat can be challenging because wheat products go by numerous names. Consider the many types of wheat flour on supermarket shelves — bromated, enriched, phosphated, plain and self-rising. Here are other wheat products to avoid:
In general, avoid the following foods unless they’re labeled as gluten-free or made with corn, rice, soy or other gluten-free grain:
Cakes and pies
Cookies and crackers
Imitation meat or seafood
Processed luncheon meats
Sauces, including soy sauce
Seasoned rice mixes
Seasoned snack foods, such as potato and tortilla chips
Soups and soup bases
Vegetables in sauce