Eating Gluten-Free at Restaurants

Gluten Free

Most people have a tendency to automatically assume certain food items are gluten-free and thus ‘safe’ for those with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. Chicken salad is gluten-free, right? Fries should be safe, shouldn’t they? Where could the gluten be lurking in chicken or a salad?

Should you be genuinely concerned about eating out at restaurants? As always, those with severe gluten intolerance, allergies, or Celiac Disease should consult or contact the restaurant prior to dining to ensure they can enjoy their meal with peace of mind, as no one can confirm the absolute safety of environments where other gluten-containing food is being prepared.

Those looking to avoid gluten – whether due to allergies or personal health reasons, are entitled to enjoy a meal at a restaurant without having to worry about problematic ingredients in their food making them sick. 

Tips & Tricks for Enjoying a Gluten-Free Meal

As we mentioned previously, never automatically assume a food or dish prepared in a restaurant is gluten-free. While it may seem ‘obvious’ that things which are not made from wheat or barley are ‘safe’ – this just is not the case. 

Restaurants often prepare gluten-containing foods in the same kitchen, using the same utensils. This is in addition to ‘hidden’ ingredients that could be derived from wheat or barley and thus trigger a reaction.

Ensure Proper Communication with Staff About Your Dietary Needs

This extends far beyond just going gluten-free. If you have any sort of allergies, food preferences, or dietary requirements (such as a strict vegetarian or vegan diet), it is essential you let staff know prior to ordering. As such, they can either advise you on what to avoid (or if it is possible to accommodate you) or ensure the food is prepared isolated from potential problem ingredients. This tip applies to any restaurant you would be dining at.

If the server has difficulty understanding your concerns, it is best to ask to speak to a manager, kitchen staff, or a supervisor to adequately address your concerns. 

You should never feel guilty or critical for doing this, as it is the staff’s job to accommodate their customers and ensure their safety. Not yours. You should never feel like a burden for advocating for your health or dietary needs.

Look for Potential ‘Problem’ Ingredients; Stick to ‘Simple’ Foods

Never trust that all the ingredients in a dish are listed on the menu. If you are still unsure of what to order based on menu descriptions (which often will not accurately list all the ingredients), stick to food that is simple and straightforward.

Gluten, from wheat or barley-related products, may be hidden in things labeled as “house dressing,” “sauce,” or “marinade.” 

Look for dishes with a designated ‘gluten-free’ icon next to them, always ask the waiter or staff prior to ordering, and stick to things that are a ‘safe bet.’ This means things like fries or a fruit salad – are incredibly unlikely to have any sort of gluten due to the preparation process. It is also extremely unlikely that these dishes would have come into contact with wheat or barley and been ‘cross-contaminated.’ 

“Cross-contamination” is also a huge concern for people with severe allergies – not just to gluten, but to other problematic allergens like shellfish.

What Does “Cross Contamination” Mean, and Should I Be Worried?

Cross-contamination is not a gluten-specific term. The Department of Health actually qualifies cross-contamination as “the physical movement or transfer of harmful bacteria from one person, object, place or [location] to another.” This usually applies to things like raw meat contaminating, say, a salad – which may result in food poisoning due to improper handling techniques.

This terminology, however, also extends to gluten and other allergens.

Cross-contamination is a risk factor for anyone with a gluten allergy, or intolerance,  especially those with Celiac Disease. While you should have a healthy level of concern over cross-contamination, especially when your safety depends on it, many times it is difficult to know fully how food is prepared – in a facility producing pre-packaged food, or in a restaurant. Studies also offer conflicting information on this.

While one study indicated that it is minimal or no gluten transfer between tools like toasters and knives when used for both gluten-containing and gluten-free foods, other studies indicate a major risk to those with Celiac Disease.

Despite researchers finding ‘low’ gluten transfer between things like toasters, knives, and pans – there were still concerns over things like using the same cooking water for gluten-free pasta after cooking wheat pasta, and for restaurant appliances like fryers. This is why it is always best to check with restaurant staff to ensure optimal safety depending on your level of need and intolerance.

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