I recently had dinner with a friend who, for medical reasons, is new to a totally gluten-free diet. And it opened my eyes about how challenging it is to avoid gluten, especially when you're dining out.
Generally speaking, people avoid gluten for three reasons: 1) They've been diagnosed with a disease (like inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's or celiac disease) or allergy in which gluten or wheat causes damage to the intestinal tract or a severe reaction; 2) they have a medical concern (like autoimmune issues or food sensitivities) for which gluten can trigger symptoms; or 3) they feel avoiding gluten helps with weight loss and overall wellness.
For folks with IBD and related conditions, avoiding even trace amounts of gluten is a medical must, and cross-contamination of foods is a real concern. For those following a gluten-free diet for lifestyle reasons, the health consequences of eating an occasional bit of gluten may be less severe.
Cooking at home is the sure-fire way for most people who avoid gluten to do so confidently. Not only can you manage ingredients, you can be diligent about preparing food and cleaning up, so that no trace of gluten gets into a dish. (Cross contamination happens when, for example, a knife used to slice bread is also used to chop vegetables, introducing gluten into the veggies.)
Dining out, even in our region's booming restaurant scene, can be a big challenge for gluten-avoiders. With my friend's experience as a guide, here are a few tips for eating out when you're eating gluten-free.
- Scout the menu online. Some menus note dishes that can be prepared gluten free: for example, check out the menu for Kaze in Over-the-Rhine, which labels those dishes 'gf'. Even better, see if the restaurant has a separate gluten free menu, like The Mercer, which also advises customers that some items are cooked in a fryer used to prepare non-GF foods, which is a contamination issue for those with celiac and IBD.
- Call to make a reservation instead of booking online. And tell the person you speak with you're GF. Several local restaurants, like Boca, note online that they can accommodate GF diners, so be sure to let them know your requirements.
- Speak with a manager or chef when you're seated. Advise them that you require gluten-free dishes and ask that they be prepared separately.
- Don't assume. Even items labeled GF may not be safe for those with celiac and IBD. For example, many pizza places offer gluten-free crust, but those pizzas are still being prepared and baked in an environment filled with wheat flour. If in doubt, ask the server or manager about preparation.
- Know hidden sources of gluten. GF diners know to avoid pasta and bread, and those with serious medical issues are well-informed about "hidden" sources of gluten. Be wary of menus with lots of fried foods; even non-wheat items like french fries may be prepared in the same oil used to cook breaded mozzarella sticks. Sauces, dressings and dips are often thickened with flour or related ingredients. Condiments like soy sauce and wasabi contain gluten. Always ask about ingredients.
- Look for restaurants that tout their GF items. Taste of Belgium's sweet and savory crepes are popular with local diners, and for good reason. The restaurant also promotes the fact that they're made with GF buckwheat flour. Likewise, Sleepy Bee Café is known for its GF "Bee Cakes" — and even non GF diners love these sweet pancakes.
- Know difference between GF and "celiac safe." Dishes made with GF ingredients can still contain gluten if they're prepared in the same kitchen space and with the same equipment used to make non-GF food. For those with celiac disease, IBD and related conditions, even small amounts of gluten can cause serious health problems. Ask about preparation, not just the food itself.
Local food fans who eat GF for lifestyle reasons will find many options on restaurant menus in our area. Those who must avoid all traces of gluten for medical reasons can, with some up-front research and conversation with a manager or chef, confidently enjoy meals out with family and friends.