Does Gluten-Free Dining Require More Than a GF Menu?


Dining out should be relaxing. But, if you have Celiac disease or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) gluten-free dining requires a bit of detective work —and perhaps a  bit of skepticism. The typical recommendations (ask for a gluten-free menu and let the server know about one’s dietary restrictions) are a good start, but may give you a false sense of assurance. As a dietitian who has worked in restaurant kitchens, I want to share some realistic tips for gluten-free dining.

Is the Gluten-Free Menu Enough?

No, it isn’t. First, consider the economics and realities of the restaurant industry. While awareness for the concerns of gluten-free customers is growing, restaurants are challenged by slim margins and regular employee turn-over. Further, appropriately accommodating gluten-free customers requires much more than simply stocking gluten-free breads and pastas. So, if a restaurant invests in the training and infrastructure  required to adequately support gluten-free diners, they’ll likely promote their efforts and will welcome questions.

Second, consider the complexity of how restaurants operate. Typically, dozens of employees come in contact with the raw ingredients for any dish, from the initial prepping of vegetables to the creation of sauces and the final preparation and plating. Most ingredients of any menu item will change hands many times, likely over several days with multiple cutting boards and various knives. This is simply the way restaurants work. So, you may have requested gluten-free bread for your Club sandwich. But, was it cut using a knife and cutting board which were just used to slice a baguette?

Third, not all restaurants have a gluten-free menu, leaving the diner to navigate the standard menu on their own. Unfortunately, one can’t make any assumptions about the ingredients on any menu, especially those of chain restaurants, often the only option for a traveler.

Due to all these factors, a gluten-free diner needs to be assertive and willing to advocate for their own health needs. Luckily, simply asking some very specific questions will greatly reduce the risk for gluten exposure from ingredients or cross-contamination. If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ gluten exposure is likely or even certain.

Some Questions to Determine Possible Gluten Exposure

  • Does the kitchen use the same cookware and utensils, prep space, fryer and grill for all menu items (regular and gluten-free)?
  • Do the salad dressing, soup, marinade or sauce contain flour, soy or teriyaki sauce?
  • Does the restaurant use imitation crabmeat (or seafood) or mashed potatoes from a mix?
  • Will any sautéed or fried items be first coated with flour? 
  • Has the oil in the deep fryer been used to cook breaded menu items?
  • Will any dish be served with or have any gluten-containing garnishes? I.e., croutons, wontons, artificial bacon bits or crispy noodles on a salad or potato, fried onions on meats or a cookie with dessert.

What If a Restaurant Can’t Accommodate Gluten-free Dining?

For sure, a detective hat is always appropriate attire for gluten-free dining. But, what if the manager doesn’t know the answers —or doesn’t have the right answers to these questions? 100% gluten avoidance isn’t always realistic. And, at some point, despite your best efforts, getting a meal might mean taking a gamble. If so, you might consider gluten-digesting enzymes for times when you can’t completely avoid gluten. Such enzymes will break the gluten into shorten strands which will cause less digestive distress.

What Should I Look For in a Gluten Enzyme?

Gluten enzymes generally work in one of two ways. Most gluten enzymes products  feature exoprotease proteolytic enzymes. Also known as didpeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV), these enzymes work by breaking down gluten peptides at either end of the strand. For example, imagine that you have a shoe string and you can only shorten it by cutting off the ends. While these enzymes shorten the gluten strands, the remaining middle strand may still be large enough to cause problems.

The other way gluten enzymes work is by breaking down the gluten proteins over the entire length of the strand —at the ends as well as in the middle. Now, you can shorten that same string by cutting at the ends as well as in the middle. These types of enzymes, known as endoproteases, break up gluten strands more completely. The result is shorter gluten strands which are much less likely to cause gastrointestinal distress.

If you’re interested in using gluten enzymes, I recommend the AN-PEP variety. One example of AN-PEP enzyme is SpectraZyme Gluten Digest. I like this product because it  is a clinically researched enzyme which works effectively in the low pH environment of the stomach with —or without other enzymes naturally present in the digestive tract.

How have you overcome gluten-free dining challenges? Have you had success with gluten enzymes? Please share and leave a comment below!

NOTE: While I am an employee of Metagenics, the enzyme manufacturer, I was not paid for this post.


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