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Is It Safe to Eat The Airline’s Gluten-free Food?

200259617-001 [1]An increasing number of airlines are now offering gluten-free meals and snacks. But if you’re living with celiac disease, the risk of food cross-contamination is always a worry. Allergic Living asked some leading members of the celiac community for their thoughts on the big question of whether: to eat or not to eat at 35,000 feet.

As well, Allergic Living recently polled the airlines about gluten-free food offered (or not) in our Comparing Airlines Chart [2].

1. Karina Allrich, of the Gluten-free Goddess blog [3]

Allergic Living: Karina, as you must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet to manage celiac disease, will you eat the gluten-free meals offered by some airlines?

KA: I never trust airlines to get it right. I buy a banana at the airport and a bottle of water. After years of suffering with celiac disease, taking the risk doesn’t tempt me at all.

I’ll be hungry, yes. But better to travel hungry than get sick on a flight.

2. Alice Bast [4], president and founder of Beyond Celiac [5] (formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness).

AL: Should people with celiac disease trust the airlines’ meals? Or is it better to bring your own food?

AB: No matter which mode of travel, we always recommends that individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity bring their own food. There are many variables in travel – flight delays, gate changes, etc. – so it is always best to be prepared. Recently, I was traveling and was served a “gluten-free” meal that listed malt flavoring as an ingredient! So, it is always best to take caution and examine your meals carefully, including any ingredient labels.

AL: Are you concerned about cross-contamination in big airline or caterers’ kitchens?

AB: Cross-contamination can be a risk in any kitchen where gluten-containing ingredients are used. Proper protocols can reduce that risk, but they must be followed carefully and consistently.

AL: Does Beyond Celiac know of any airline programs in place to prevent cross-contamination?

AB: We have not had any airlines complete our GREAT Kitchens program [6], but we would love to take our gluten-free training to the sky!

3. Shauna James Ahern, of the Gluten-Free Girl blog

AL: Shauna, as you have celiac disease, do you trust and eat the gluten-free meals offered by some airlines?

SJA: Gwen, we recently planned a trip to Italy, so I’ve been dealing with this. We’re flying Air France. They say they have a gluten-free meal and a completely allergen-free meal. [Read the details of that meal here [2].]

Since they were so careful to describe their free-from meal and the amount of precaution they take, I’m going to trust it.

Next:  Frequent flyer Gluten Free Mike

4. Mike De Cicco-Butz, of the blog Gluten Free Mike [7]. As a frequent flyer in his day job in public relations, Mike had lots to say on this topic, so we’ve included it all for readers.

AL: You have celiac disease and you’ve written about eating good GF meals on airlines. Have you had concerns about potential cross-contamination?

MDB: I have had good meals at 35,000 feet and if I said I didn’t have concerns, I would be lying. Cross-contamination is always in the back of my mind. With flying it required taking a proverbial leap of faith that thankfully has paid off.

In the million plus miles I have flown since my diagnosis 12 years ago, I have never had an issues with my gluten-free meals being just that – gluten-free. I am also severely allergic to shellfish and, quite honestly, I worry more about that when it comes to in-flight catering.

[Airline] catering companies around the globe seem to keep their gluten-free meals very basic from an ingredient standpoint, steering clear of other food items that might pose a problem.

AL: Do you have any favorite airlines for gluten-friendliness?

MDB: LAN Airlines, Emirates, and Continental (now United) all do very nice jobs in the long- and ultra-long-haul department. JetBlue is my favorite for shorter domestic hops. Their snack options, both complimentary and buy-on-board snack boxes offer some gluten-free options for Celiac flyers.

Sadly, my most impressive gluten-free meal came from an airline that is not around any longer. It presented me with my first ever in-flight gluten-free roll. Just remember, the main courses of gluten-free meals tend to be relatively basic (read chicken) – even in the premium cabins – but at least you’ll have something to hold you over until you land.

AL: Have you ever gotten ill from an airline meal that was supposed to be gluten-free, and wondered?

MDB: I can safely say that in hundreds of flights and more than a million air miles since my diagnosis, I have never gotten “glutened” on any of my flights.

AL: As a big traveler, what are your best tips for eating gluten-free in the air?

MDB: Be prepared; things happen and your gluten-free meal might never actually make it on the flight. The best advice I can give is to check with a flight attendant as soon as you board to ensure your meal has been boarded.

When my gluten-free meal has gone missing, I have asked flight attendants to make up a meal on the fly – pulling salads, fruit, cheese, and other items from the galleys to help me out. I do always carry a gluten-free contingency pack that contains, depending on the length of the flight, a range of gluten-free nibbles ranging from snack items to “just add water” all-in-one meals.

I also check the website of the airline, as many publish their in-flight menus online (by route). (See also AL’s chart here [2].) While I love flying, in the end it is just a means of transportation to get you to your ultimate destination – you can always enjoy fine dining options when you are back on terra firma. (See Mike’s blog here [8].)

Readers: let us know your gluten-free food experiences with the airlines at editor@allergicliving.com. We are looking for people’s stories for a future issue of the magazine.