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Alice Bast, Beyond Celiac

How to Reduce the Risk of Cross-Contact of Gluten when Dining Out

How many times have you closed your eyes, taken a bite and thought: “I hope this doesn’t make me sick?” For those of us with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, that question arises every time we put food in our mouths.

Dietary compliance can seem like a black-and-white issue. You either stick to your diet, or you don’t. But there is a gray area, such as those times when we choose a gluten-free meal but may not ask as many questions as we should, or we aren’t as careful about preparation as we could be. Consider some of these examples:

  • You go to a restaurant and order a platter of grilled vegetables. You ask if they’re gluten-free and the server replies, “yes” As you’re waiting for your order, you notice that some of the sandwiches passing by have toasted buns. Should you ask the server if they use a dedicated grill for vegetables? Absolutely. But the food has already been ordered, and you don’t want to be a pest.
  • You go to a friend’s house for dinner. She is super excited because she bought gluten-free crackers for you and has a separate platter for serving them. She doles out some wheat crackers on one platter, then reaches into the gluten-free cracker box to fill up the other plate. Do you stop her or do you just hope that her hands weren’t gluten-y enough to make you sick?
  • You’re on a date and she’s raving about her entrée. She cuts off a piece so you can try it. The sauce looks a little thick, and you’re wondering if there could be some flour in it. You’re wary about taking a bite, but you don’t want to offend her.
  • You’re on a short lunch break and rush into your favorite sandwich shop. You order a gluten-free sandwich, then turn away to make a call. When your order is up, you realize that you forgot to ask them to use a clean knife for cutting the sandwich. There’s no time to wait for a new sandwich, and you’re pretty sure they know about cross-contamination issues.

These are not easy situations. We all know what we should do, but when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to think clearly and act confidently. And did I mention that no one is perfect?

I’d like to share one of my own recent mistakes. I was at a trade show and stopped by a sponsor’s booth. They had food out for sampling, and – hungry as I was – I grabbed a piece and took a bite. The marketing director nearly tackled me trying to knock it out of my hand. It was a sample from their sister brand, and not gluten-free. Should I have asked before taking the sample? Yes, but I made an assumption, and you know how that turns out.

So, what did I do after this incident? I forgave myself. I didn’t harp on it or punish myself for not being more vigilant. I made a simple mistake, and I learned from it.

Poor dietary adherence, whether cheating or simply caught in those precarious moments that I’ve mentioned, is a major issue in our celiac disease community. It is one of the leading causes of persistent celiac disease symptoms and poor intestinal healing. Over time, that can lead to serious health complications and prevent us from living full, healthy lives.

We need a solution, but making ourselves feel guilty sure isn’t it. Instead, at Beyond Celaic, we’re approaching it from the strategies that we know and trust: education, empowerment and advocacy.

There’s a purpose for having some risk in our lives. If we played it safe all the time, we would be eating the same seven meals at home every week. We wouldn’t try new restaurants or sample new foods like quinoa or coconut milk. So, let’s acknowledge those hazards. Let’s be honest when we make mistakes. And let’s pledge not to be perfect, but to learn from each bite.

Alice Bast is President and CEO of Beyond Celiac (formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness). For free resources to navigate your gluten-free journey, visit  www.beyondceliac.org

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