You would be forgiven for assuming that if something is labelled “gluten free” or advertised as a “gluten free option”, then it doesn’t contain gluten and is therefore safe for a coeliac person to eat.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong. In the catering world, gluten free does not = safe.
Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve walked hopefully into cafes and restaurants advertising gluten free options, only to be told that their “gluten free” options are not actually suitable for coeliacs, or people with allergies to gluten.
Who is gluten free food for?
“Gluten free” options in restaurants and cafes seem to frequently be aimed not at people with a medical need to avoid gluten, but at people who choose to “go gluten free”.
People willing to spend significant money on gluten free foods that they perceive to be “healthier”, “cleaner” or “lighter”, who do not suffer an autoimmune or allergic reaction if they eat gluten, or trace amounts of gluten.
In restaurant and cafe environments, this is presenting a problem for coeliacs. We get lured in by the promise of safe eats, only to find out that there is nothing for us after all, or we suffer the consequences after eating cross-contaminated, supposedly “gluten free” food.
The term “gluten free” seems to have become a commodity, a buzzword that can be attached to a product to justify a higher price, rather than the regulated safety term it should be.
Restaurants and cafes are hop, skip and jumping on the gluten free bandwagon, without pausing to implement the safety procedures that are crucial for coeliacs.
Is this legal?
UK law states that “Only foods that contain 20 ppm (parts per million) or less can be labelled as ‘gluten-free’.”
Really?! I’ve come across countless restaurants and cafes where this is clearly not the case. Common issues include:
– “gluten free” foods that are fried in the same oil as gluten-containing foods
– “gluten free” bread that is toasted in the same toaster as regular bread
– “gluten free” cakes that are stored touching gluten-containing cakes
“No gluten-containing ingredients” is a term you may also have spotted.
According to Coeliac UK, this “applies to foods made with ingredients that don’t contain gluten and where good cross contamination controls are in place.” This term is not covered by UK law, and is no guarantee for good cross-contamination procedures in my experience.
If restaurants and cafes cannot guarantee they meet the 20ppm legal guideline to use the term “gluten free” and are warning people who react to gluten against eating their food, then why are they using the the term “gluten free” in the first place?
So have things really improved?
As somebody who lived through the coeliac dark ages (aka the 90’s), I still think that the popularity of the gluten free diet has improved things for us.
There are restaurants and cafes out there who cater brilliantly to coeliacs. 100% gluten free restaurants like Niche and 2 Oxford Place, and an increasing number of regular restaurants that offer decent gluten free options and take steps to minimise cross-contamination. (To name a few, Tilley’s Bistro in Bath, the Cote Brasserie and Le Bistrot Pierre chains, White Rabbit Pizza in Oxford.)
I’d be surprised if anyone longs for the days when eating out was a baked potato or nothing, and bread was something that only came on prescription.
However, as gluten free options become prevalent in UK restaurants and cafes, I am getting increasingly frustrated by this gap that exists between “gluten free” and actually safe for coeliacs, and I’m not sure what the way forward is.
I’d be interested to hear other coeliac’s and caterers thoughts on this. Have you come across this when eating out? Do we need tighter regulation around using the term “gluten free”?
Write me a comment and let me know.
Until next time,
Check out Coeliac UK’s website to find out more about:
– How businesses can cater for customers with coeliac disease (and why it is profitable)
– UK laws regulating gluten free labelling.