You may have noticed that the gluten-free diet has become a little trendy lately. It seems to be the latest buzz at restaurants and at grocery stores. The trend has definitely benefited us celiacs, in that we have more food options. But there is a downside that I recently discovered.
There was a time when gluten-free wasn’t a popular fad diet. Now that it is, it can be difficult to decipher whether a “gluten-free menu” offering at a restaurant is truly gluten-free. One must do a little investigating in order to determine WHO that gluten-free menu is catered to; either 1). The needs of people who are trying to avoid gluten (fad dieters) or 2). Those of us who must strictly avoid gluten for medical reasons. (An example is Domino’s new “gluten-free” pizza offering that Domino’s has since changed their advertisement to state it is not safe for those with celiac disease, even though they still call it “gluten-free”). Point in case, gluten-free menus do not always = gluten-free.
I had a long discussion last week with a restaurant manager at a restaurant that I wanted to try out. I was inquiring about whether they offered gluten-free options. He confidently announced they had just launched their new gluten-free menu due to high demand from customers. I began to ask more in-depth questions about their kitchen practices and told him I have celiac disease. When he realized I wasn’t a “fad dieter,” he became much more helpful. He shared with me his frustration with gluten-free fad dieters that make his staff go to great lengths to accommodate their gluten-free meal preferences, only to see the same patrons order a gluten-filled dessert. He expressed that this confuses his staff; who already struggles to understand celiac disease and food allergies, and it discredits those who actually really need to be on a gluten-free diet (celiacs and those with life threatening food allergies). He said it can result in restaurant staff not taking the food-prep precautions and cross-contamination risks seriously. This complaint seems to have resonated within the restaurant industry. I recently heard a food critic on the radio saying that this is currently the #1 complaint of restaurant managers and chefs she polled.
I made a point to validate the manager’s frustrations and told him that many of us with celiac disease have the same concerns when we see our disease becoming a fad diet craze. It’s frustrating- and scary- for those of us for whom this diet is not an option. It definitely is the reason I feel the need to over explain every time I set foot in a restaurant. I need them to know that I am a celiac and I will suffer serious medical harm if a crumb hits my plate.
I am reading more and more articles about restaurants that have been busted for small infractions and /or outright gross misconduct when it comes to gluten-free offerings. One that is coming to mind right now is the story of a popular, well-respected chef (who at one point was even on a popular cooking show) who admitted on his Facebook page to purposely using regular, wheat flour-based pasta whenever a patron ordered pasta off of his restaurant’s gluten-free menu. He said he wanted to “prove” to the public that celiac disease and gluten intolerance does not exist and that people don’t actually get sick from eating gluten.
You might think that’s ridiculous and downright cruel, even dangerous, and wonder how someone could be so self-righteous (I agree!). And you may think those types of situations must be rare. But you’d be surprised at the number of articles I have read. I even have a personal story of my own to share. At my previous employer (a large, national health insurance company), there was a registered nurse who worked on my team. Not knowing me very well and not knowing I have celiac disease, she admitted to me that she had purposely been gluten poisoning her new boyfriend, because he had told her he could not eat gluten and she didn’t believe him. So she was sneaking gluten into his meals to see if he would get sick. A registered nurse!
So when I hear stuff like this, it makes me not want to go out to eat at all. I have t1 diabetes too, and I can’t imagine someone not believing I have it or thinking that it doesn’t really exist at all and purposely going out of their way to harm me in order to “test” me.
Celiac disease is already a challenging disease and I wish that one of the challenges of having it didn’t include having to prove its existence or its severity thanks to the influx of fad dieters. Frustrating!