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A Gluten-Free Quandary
April 6, 2011
I am in a quandary. I received a bag of chocolate-covered gluten-free pretzels from a candy company. The company makes other chocolate-covered pretzels and crackers, but none are gluten-free. In fact, this is the only product in their 60+ product line that says “gluten-free,” and there’s a big disclaimer on the label, warning me that the product is made on machinery that also produces items containing wheat. Never mind that I have celiac disease and cross contamination will make me ill, the company sent the product to me as food editor. They want me to tell others. You see where I’m going with this?
Am I alone in thinking that the booming gluten-free trend is placing us in harm’s way all over again? Sometimes I feel like we’re back in the gluten-free Stone Age where we can take nothing for granted, a place where we must ask questions of every restaurant, every manufacturer. I, for one, was becoming complacent, wading in gluten-free heaven, a place where seemingly everyone was catering to those of us with gluten sensitivity. Now, I’m not so sure.
We make certain assumptions when a company calls out “gluten-free” on the label. We assume they have researched the term and they know what’s safe for the diet. If someone has taken the time to put “gluten-free” on a menu or a product label, we assume they’ve also taken the time to understand that barley malt is a no-no and oats, if used, have to be free of wheat.
But last month, I ate in two fine restaurants in two separate cities. Both claimed they had a gluten-free menu. The Phoenix establishment served me croutons in my salad followed by sea bass on a bed of faro. The restaurant staff and I had already had a discussion and they were apologetic, even took the meal off my bill. At some level, they got it. I suspect they will not make such mistakes again.
Then I ate another meal in a swank NYC restaurant. We chose this place because we were celebrating a special occasion (my son’s birthday) and they touted a gluten-free menu. “Trust me, my wife has celiac disease,” was the implied message from the chef/owner. I did. I trusted him all the way to the grilled scallops served on a bed of kamut. When I explained kamut was not gluten-free, they showed me a listing on an IPhone that said, “Safe for a wheat-free diet.” I had them scroll down further to a line that said, “Not safe for celiac.” But they didn’t seem to care. “The chef has a celiac wife. He knows,” they insisted. Without apology, they left the dish on the table and charged us for it. While the Phoenix restaurant experience could be chocked up to an honest mistake, I could not even extract any good intention from this fancy NY kitchen. I was glad I asked before I ate. My son was not as lucky. He had already eaten two mouthfuls and spent part of his birthday in the bathroom.
This week, I read about a supposed chef in Colorado who posted on his Facebook page that gluten free is “all in our disturbed little heads.” Then he said, “People ask me for gluten-free pasta in my restaurant all the time. I tell em, ‘sure.’ Then I serve em our pasta, which I make from scratch with high gluten flour. And you know what? Nothing. NOTHING ever happens! People leave talking about how good they feel gluten free and guess what? They just had a full dose! Idiots!"
This story is all over the Internet. Can you imagine anyone saying this about a serious illness? The chef has wisely retreated into his gluten-filled cave and removed his Facebook page entirely. I can only wish him a sudden allergic reaction to gluten.
Now granted, for every horror story, I could recount six wonderful dining experiences. I’m sure you can, as well. I could tell you about manufacturers who go out of their way to look after my diet and bakeries that are dedicated to providing me with delicious food. And I can tell you of many, many safe, delicious meals I’ve enjoyed with friends and family over the years.
But this isn’t about happiness. It’s about fear, about the quandary. How much do I grill a server or a manufacturer when doubts prevail? What do I do when the answer is not within my zone of gluten-free comfort? And do I challenge someone who says, “Trust me. I know your diet.”?
What do I do when a company makes a gluten-free claim and cautions me in the same breath?
What do you do?