Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, barley, and rye products. It is also often used as a stabilizing agent in a wide range of products from ketchup to ice cream. There are very few foods one can know with confidence contain no gluten without inquiring.
People with celiac disease have an intolerance for gluten, sometimes to a severe degree where they will be made very sick by even a small quantity of gluten. It is imperative that they have as close to a gluten-free diet as possible. Some people without celiac disease may have some lesser difficulty digesting gluten, and seek to lessen or eliminate gluten in their diet as well.
As hard as it is to avoid foods with gluten, the situation for the person trying to eat gluten-free is further complicated by the fact that if other foods, plates, the cook’s hands, etc. came in contact with a food that has gluten, then even the trace amount that is spread to the food they eat can cause them serious problems.
Obviously it can be especially difficult for a gluten-intolerant person to dine in a restaurant. But here are a few tips to at least make the process a little easier:
1. Research food and restaurants in advance.
The more knowledge you have, the better prepared you are. You need to know what foods always have gluten, usually have gluten, sometimes have gluten, usually do not have gluten, and (almost) never have gluten. There are countless books, articles, websites, etc. that you can use to educate yourself on these matters.
As restaurants have become more aware of the problems some diners have with gluten (and other dietary and food allergy issues), many have become a lot more sensitive to their customers’ needs. Nowadays you can use Google and probably find restaurants in your area advertising the fact that they have a gluten-free menu, or at least a few gluten-free items on their menu.
2. Follow up. Don’t assume that what’s claimed to be gluten-free is necessarily gluten-free.
If you find a restaurant that claims to have gluten-free items, that’s a promising start, but you’re not home free yet. Call them and ask them relevant questions to make sure you really will be able to get a gluten-free meal there.
Once you’re in the restaurant, continue to make inquiries. Make sure the server fully understands your dietary concerns and will pass them on to the person preparing your meal. If possible, speak to the cook directly.
A lot of this is feel. If they’re telling you “Yeah, yeah, sure, we can do gluten-free,” but they seem only dimly aware of what it even means, or they’re relying on you to tell them what foods do and don’t have gluten (they need to know all the ingredients of their foods; you cannot be expected to), you know you’re in trouble.
Talk to them enough to where you’ll know if they’re on the ball, experienced dealing with this issue, concerned and responsible enough to be meticulous about any possible contamination from other foods, etc. You’re putting your health in their hands; make sure they’re worthy of that level of trust.
3. Don’t be embarrassed about changing your mind.
You might think everything is fine, but then realize it’s not. Maybe you see something in the kitchen that tells you there’s no way your meal won’t come in contact with other dubious items while it’s being prepared. Your salad that you were assured would be gluten-free might be served with croutons because the cook or waiter forgot they contain gluten. (If they forgot that, what else might they forget?)
Politely cancel your order and leave. It’s not worth it to take chances.
4. If everything goes well, give them your business in the future.
If you really did manage to get a gluten-free meal (and enjoyed it), make a note of the restaurant, what you ordered, and perhaps some of the personnel, such as who was doing the cooking. Let them know you appreciate their effort, and that you’ll be back.
Having a short list of restaurants where you know you can dine with confidence can be a real boon for a gluten-intolerant person.
Nancy Lapid, “Gluten-Free Dining in Restaurants.” About.com.
Daniel Moran, “Traveling and Eating Gluten-Free at Restaurants.” Celiac.com.