If you’re one of the about 3 million Americans today who identify as “gluten-free” (including, sadly, myself) then you know how difficult it can be to navigate around the troublesome protein when ordering a restaurant meal. Miniscule quantities of gluten tend to hide in sauces, dressings, and condiments, and “cross-contamination” from shared fryers and grill tops is also a risk factor. If you’re merely sensitive to gluten, and it makes you feel a bit off, these stray bits are likely little more than a nuisance, but if you’ve got celiac disease, the inadvertent consumption of any amount of gluten can trigger serious intestinal damage that could have you feeling unwell for anywhere from a few days up to entire weeks.
Today, an increasing number of restaurants cater to gluten-free diners; even fast food spots like Chipotle, In-N-Out Burger, and Wendy’s all offer gluten-free dishes. While gluten-free diners might be elated by the prospect of chowing down on wheat-free pasta, burger buns, and sandwich wraps, a new study shows that a full one third of dishes labeled “gluten-free” at restaurants actually contain the protein, potentially causing harm to diners who truly shouldn’t be eating it.
To obtain results for the study, which was presented on Monday at the American College of Gastroenterology’s annual scientific meeting, restaurant-goers took portable gluten detection devices with them, then tested dishes advertised as gluten-free. Over the course of 18 months, Today.com reported, 804 testers measured gluten in more than 5,600 dishes in restaurants across the country and found that a whopping 32 percent of those purportedly ‘safe’ dishes were not gluten-free.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Benjamin Lerner of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, told Today that the numbers were sobering for eaters who really can’t afford to ingest any amount of gluten.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “Approximately 1 percent of the US population has celiac disease. For those patients, exposure to gluten in their diet can cause various symptoms—nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain. But also it can cause damage to their intestines.”
Of the tested foods, pizza and pasta were the worst offenders, with about half of them containing some amount of gluten. That’s likely due to cross-contamination; restaurants might be boiling gluten-free pasta in the same water as the wheat kind, or baking gluten-free bread in the same oven as standard loaves.
“We think it’s really an issue of contamination, not willful tricking people,” Lerner said. “Having gluten-free ingredients is not enough to ensure that gluten isn’t making its way into the food.”
Gluten contamination was also higher at dinner than in the morning, suggesting that over the course of the day, the workspaces, and pots and pans, that restaurant kitchens designate as gluten-free eventually crossed paths with some gluten ingredients.
While the news may seem sobering for celiac sufferers, staying gluten-free while dining out isn’t an impossibility; after all, a full 68 percent of the tested dishes that were advertised as safe turned out to be fine. But Lerner advised diners to get comfortable with asking a lot of questions about how the food was prepared, and what kinds of practices the kitchen employs to keep gluten-free foods safe from cross contamination.
“It’s important for people who are avoiding gluten for whatever reason to just understand that a gluten-free label at a restaurant shouldn’t be taken at face value. There may be some gluten in those food products,” he said.
And if you’re one of those punks who isn’t truly intolerant to gluten, but has given it up for vague, faddish “health reasons”? Now might be just the time to let go, live a little, and just enjoy your freedom to get down with wheat.