Gluten-Free Living: What the Menu Isn’t Telling You

Eating outI used to blindly walk into an unfamiliar restaurant with my fingers thoroughly crossed in the hopes that there was something on the menu I could eat without too much modification.  And then I’d see it.  That small little asterisk in the corner of the menu indicating that they served gluten-free bread.  I’m safe here!  They know how to feed me!  I’d breath a sigh of relief.

As I later discovered though, I was wrong.  Those little notes on the menu or that the cute little homemade “It’s gluten-free!” sign can’t always be trusted.  Sometimes, even my favorite little indie restaurants don’t have a clue.

A little sandwich shop with their grandma’s-kitchen theme made me completely drop my guard once I saw those six deceptive words: “gluten-free bread available upon request.”  Perhaps it was the partly due to the homey tone of the place, but I felt like these folks most know how to take care of me.  So I ordered fried eggs and gluten-free toast (not something I’d order now, thanks to my egg allergy).  It wasn’t until I was getting up to leave that I realized these well-intended people had thrown my bread right into the same crumb-filled, gluten-infested toaster as everyone else’s.  And, without knowing it, they’d put my health in danger.

Even one of my very favorite indie coffee shops is guilty of a similar offense.  I know the manager by name and every Monday a group of friends and I meet there for a few games of Apples to Apples.  They care about their customers and the quality of their products, but that doesn’t mean they know the first thing about gluten.  In fact, the “gluten-free” cookies were made on a wooden cutting board and on the counter right next to a pizza and a couple of sandwiches (all major don’ts due to cross-contamination).  It might be wheat-free, but it’s not really gluten-free.  And it’s not safe.

Yesterday, while on the bus, I ended up talking with the manager at a new little diner that just opened.  He was more than happy to talk about his restaurant, even informing me that he’d tried offering gluten-free bread for a while.  It was no longer on the menu though because it hadn’t sold enough.  “But you could order something in a wrap,” he said very sincerely, “because that would have less gluten.” Less?  But I can’t even have a crumb!

Anyone who tries to sell me on a wheat flour wrap because it has “less gluten” doesn’t know nearly enough about celiac disease for me to feel comfortable with them feeding me.  I don’t think any of these independent businesses are intentionally misleading their customers; like a lot of people, they just don’t understand.

I’ve eaten at some wonderful, extremely careful indie restaurant run by people who go out of their way to keep me safe, but because not every place is like that we have to do some investigating because anyone can write “gluten-free” on cardstock or buy a loaf of bread.

By Kelsey Hough.   All rights reserved.  Contact me for reprint permission by leaving a comment bellow or follow me on Facebook.  

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9 thoughts on “Gluten-Free Living: What the Menu Isn’t Telling You

    • I really sympathize! I live in the suburbs, but I’m close to Seattle. I find that the closer I get to the city, for whatever reason, the better a lot of restaurants get about understanding gluten. But even then I still run into problems.

      I’ve found a couple of places that are more naturally gluten-free (sea food, and Indian and Mexican food) where I’ve eaten a lot and feel safe. Even when it comes to a couple of chain restaurants in the area, I always go back to the same ones because I feel safe. Eating out is sure a tricky, dangerous business when you’re gluten-free or have food allergies.

      Thanks for commenting!


  1. Pingback: The Old Spaghetti Factory: Is it Really "Gluten-Free?" | The Crunchy Cook

  2. The main difference between our diets is the severity of the consequences that come from straying from them. I get intensely sick for about a day, and I am prone to stomach bleeding so I have to mind what pain medications I can take if I have a headache, but even the pain from that doesn’t last more than two days (unless it’s asymptomatic for too long of course).
    Also, the doctors don’t actually know what’s causing my pain, and I’ve had ultrasounds, X-Rays, an endoscopy, colonoscopy, HIDA scan, so much blood work I could feed an army of vampires, and the most they can figure out is GERD, which they’ve also determined is not the cause but a symptom of whatever is causing me so much abdominal pain. Also, despite the pain not lasting as long as a gluten contamination and from what I can gather, isn’t actually as crippling, I can still get episodes even if I stick adamantly to my proper diet and medications. (I have to take an antiacid every morning, and the dosage is twice that of the “do not exceed” dosage you get over the counter).
    Overall I would say that, whatever I have is a mystery and an inconvenience, but that’s all it is. And celiac disease, like you’ve emphasized, has a higher risk when it comes to finding restaurants that can feed you. There is no such thing as cross-contamination for me. I can take a piece of bread and dust off the cinnamon and be able to eat it and not get sick from bits of cinnamon still on it.
    I think that’s the scariest part to me. If I can’t see spices, it’s usually good enough for me, but you can’t even see gluten contamination and it affects you so severely.
    Wah I rambled a lot and I’m not even sure what point I was even making! It’s mostly that I wanted to let you know I understood the severity of it and explain my own situation a bit as well, since we rarely actually talk and I wanted to let you know I read your blog posts and it all went on from there this keyboard is loud.

    • While the symptoms aren’t the same, I can really understand with the having a million and one tests and still not figuring out what’s wrong.

      I started going to Children’s Hospital in Seattle every couple of months for a new test when I was in elementary school. I visited doctors who dealt with bones, muscles, nerves, and anything else you can think of. And I had all kinds of weird tests. But they never found anything.

      I was sick a lot as a kid. And my feet were starting to bend upwards (think of Barbi’s feet, how they’re made to fit into her high heed shoes) and my fingers were starting to lock (it looked like I was curving my little finger for tea all of the time). I even had braces that were supposed to help fix them, but they just hurt a lot.

      Anyway, the doctors finally just gave up. They didn’t know what to do. And it wasn’t until I was 18 that I met a nurse who had a daughter with celiac. She took one look at my fingers and asked if I’d ever had any trouble eating wheat or dealt with health issues. She was able to diagnose me right there and then. Explained how to get rid of gluten. And I’ve been feeling better ever since.

      It’s horrible to not know what’s wrong with your body. And because celiac is caused by eating something, doctors don’t even think about it. But that’s for another rant …


      • That is terrifying, and the physical aspects remind me of something my little brother and I both have called Fragile X Syndrome which can cause physical anomalies as well as mental ones, and he has nearly all of the physical anomalies while I am gifted with nearly all of the mental ones. I found it odd that this mental disorder was diagnosed with a blood test, but it’s genetic also.

        • Thankfully Shannon doesn’t have celiac to the same degree that I do, even though it does run in families the way that it sounds like Fragile X Syndrome likely does. She’s never had issues with any kind of physical abnormalities, and we also figured out what was wrong sooner than with me. What is really weird is that the last year my feet and fingers have very, very slowly begun to straighten. So I now wear a full shoe size bigger than I did only a year ago! And it’s only because my arch isn’t so oddly high. I was really lucky, so celiac folks can have it happen to their backs or the middle of their legs and then they end up crippled. In order to fix it when it get that bad the doctors have to break the bone and reset it. *Shudder*

          And people think celiac disease is only a fad diet. Ugh.

  3. This is the most frustrating part, in my opinion – the constant explanations to restaurants and people! My boyfriend’s mom says things like “Oh, but you can eat things like Wheat Thins now, right?” (Uhh, no???) and restaurants seem to have NO clue about cross-contamination. I wrote about this on my blog, but I feel that while the people going gluten-free to lose weight or whatever are bringing awareness to being gluten-free, they’re also doing us a disservice because servers, restaurants and the general public seem to think that “just a little” is okay. I wish restaurants were required to take classes on allergies and celiac disease before opening.

    • Yes, I agree completely! My great-grandma asked me if I could have Wonder Bread because it wasn’t “wheat bread.” I felt like screaming: “Seriously?! What do you think it’s made out of?” But I just said, “Nope, can’t have that either, Grandma.” I actually get asked that a lot. Food idiots. =P

      The lack of knowledge about cross-contamination with restaurants though is just ridiculous. Have you read the book “The Gluten-Free Girl”? The author makes a comment that she’ll realized that she has to take her health seriously and when she knows the waitstaff is patronizing her, she politely leaves. None of us should ever have to pay to have someone not take our food issues seriously; we shouldn’t pay to be poisoned.


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