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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Mr. Yuck Stickers: Helping You Stay Gluten-Free

220px-Poison_Help.svgMy friend, Emmalie, who is gluten and lactose free as well as vegetarian, and I were talking about the complicated process of going gluten-free.  And she shared an excellent idea with me about how she keeps track of what foods she can’t eat. 

Emmalie said that when she first became gluten-free, she bought a bunch of Mr. Yuck stickers and “put them on all the glutenous foods” in her house to help reminder her which foods were off limits.  Covering foods she couldn’t eat in the stickers helped her make the transition to a gluten-free / dairy-free / meat-free lifestyle a lot easier.  “It also helped my family understand what I could and couldn’t eat.”  Someone could easily use another type of sticker though (might be smart to use a different kind if you’re dealing with small children and are concerned the poison label might confuse them).  But whatever type of labels you use, I think stickers are a very simple way to effectively mark all the food foes in the kitchen.  

In addition to using Mr. Yuck, Emmalie also found star stickers to be helpful.  “I got tired of checking my food all of the time so I would stick a star sticker on food that I had checked and found to be gluten-free.”  The stickers have helped Emmalie to keep track of her food foes and now she says that she only uses “stickers for condiments and foods that aren’t obvious.” 

“Mr. Yuk’s face really helped me come to terms with the idea that foods that I loved don’t always love me back.  Love should be a two-way street.”  Absolutely.

Gluten-Free 101: Foods and ingredients to Avoid

Gluten-FreeSo, you’ve just been diagnosed with celiac disease or you’re starting an elimination diet to determine the future state of your relationship with gluten.  You’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to go from here.  It’s normal to feel overwhelmed because learning to be gluten-free—thinking about what’s in everything you eat, reading ingredient labels—is more than a diet, it’s a completely new skill.

The very first step to getting you on the road to recovery is learning which ingredients and foods to avoid and then clearing out all the gluten from your life.  I’m not a medical or dietary professional, but thanks to my many food foes I have a lot of experience reading ingredient labels and looking things up.  While this isn’t a list of absolutely everything that contains gluten, hopefully it’ll help you identify some of the main food foes in your life and give you a better idea of what to watch out for.

If you’re like most folks and don’t have a lot of experience with allergies or food sensitivities, figuring out what’s in your food likely sounds challenging or even downright impossible (start off by learning how to read ingredient labels).

Here’s what to do:  Print out the lists of ingredients and foods to avoid before going to the grocery store (if you try to keep track of it all in your head at first you’ll likely forget something).  Then, before you put anything in your cart, flip over the package/box/can and carefully look over the list of ingredients.  Don’t assume anything (not even something like processed meat or tea) is gluten-free without first checking.


Ingredients to Avoid:

  1. Wheat flour (yes, this includes white bread)
  2. Whole wheat flour
  3. Barley
  4. Rye
  5. Oats (due to cross-contamination, unless it specifically says it’s gluten-free)
  6. Spelt (Only an option if you’re wheat-free and not gluten-free)
  7. Bleached flour
  8. Kamut
  9. Triticale
  10. Hydrolyzed wheat protein
  11. Malt-Vinegar (flavoring, syrup, and extract)
  12. Wheat germ or bran
  13. Wheat starch-modified
  14. Hordeum vulgare extract
  15. Hydrolyzed wheat gluten
  16. Hydrolyzed wheat protein

Questionable Ingredients:

  1. MSG (can be made with wheat gluten, but I honestly don’t know enough to tell if it’s safe so I just avoid it)
  2. Artificial coloring (sometimes it’s safe, sometimes it’s not)
  3. Carmel coloring (I’ve heard a  lot of different thoughts on this, so I try to always avoid it just to be safe)

Foods to Avoid:

  1. Baked goods that use a non-gluten-free flour (hamburger buns, cakes, bread, most corn bread, donuts)
  2. Pasta made from wheat flour
  3. Ramen noodles
  4. Cornbread (unless made from a gluten-free recipe)
  5. Beer (unless labeled gluten-free)
  6. Barely malt
  7. Breaded foods (you can make a gluten-free version at home)
  8. Bread crumbs
  9. Couscous (sometimes you can find a gluten-free version at the grocery store but avoid it completely when eating out)
  10. Flour tortillas
  11. Graham crackers
  12. Sauce or teriyaki sauce (unless wheat-free, read the ingredient list)
  13. Teas that contain barley (always read the ingredient list)
  14. Ice cream containing cookie dough and other chunky things (rocky road can be a problem, too)

Gluten-Free 101: How do you read ingredient labels?

no gluten free symbolI grew up in a family with a lot of food allergies, so reading ingredient labels looking for random things like mushrooms, mint, carrots, and honeydew was just a part of life.  It wasn’t until I discovered I had Celiac disease that things got interesting—so much to remember!

To my surprise, one of the most common questions I’m asked about being gluten-free and living with food allergies is how to read the ingredient labels on food.  Some friends have told me that they don’t know how to tell what’s in their food, which makes the idea of being gluten-free seem downright impossible.  While it is challenging, due to the fact that it’s require by law to post the ingredient list on food, it’s not impossible.      


Here’s what to do:

1.  Bring a list.  It’s hard to keep track of all of your food foes when it’s still new, so bring a list.  This will help to keep you from purchasing things you can’t eat.

2.  Forget the “Nutrition Facts.” When you’re gluten-free or dealing with an allergy, all of the important info is to the right or below the “Nutrition Facts” (on the back of the box/container/can) in the “Ingredients” section.

3.  Check the “Contains” or “Allergy Information” section.  It should be right below the ingredient list, usually in uppercase letters, and it will often tell you if the product contains a common allergen or sensitivity (if it says it “may contain” something or “manufactured on equipment that also produces”, it means there are cross-contamination issues and you should avoid it).

4.  Carefully read through the “Ingredient” section.  Even if the “Allergy Information” section checks out, don’t stop there!  A lot of ingredient labels, like the Peanut Butter Cheerio one below, doesn’t say if the food contains gluten.  Don’t assume it’s okay until you’ve read everything.  If you read through the “Ingredients” section on the Cheerios below, you can tell that it still has gluten because it contains “whole grain oats” and “whole grain barley.”  So, don’t eat it!


Ingredient List -- Cheerios Peanut Butter2

Gluten-Free 101: Cross-Contamination

Oftentimes one of the biggest issues if you live in house with both gluten-free and non-gluten-free people is cross-contamination.  My mom, Deborah Taylor-Hough whose the author of Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month, joined me in chatting about how to make your kitchen safe for your gluten-free family members or friends.  Here are some of the tips that we learned the hard way …

Kelsey Hough and Deborah Taylor-Hough on living gluten-free.