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Meg Thorsen provides guidance for those eating out with CD or gluten intolerance

After working with catering teams for the best part of 10 years, I can say the vast majority of caterers are anxious to provide safe food for people with food allergies and intolerance's. Like all of us they take pride in their work and at times are so anxious to get it right they many end up over compensating for fear of getting it wrong.

But despite of this, people with coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are still at risk of being “glutened” when dining out. There are still individuals who avoid eating out or attending social events so they can adhere to a gluten free diet.

Sharing food and eating out are really important for our social well-being. So this article covers some of the key things you can do to take some control when you are eating out.

Broadly speaking all individuals with either coeliac disease and gluten intolerance need to avoid foods containing gluten which is found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. But individuals with gluten intolerance do have some tolerance and therefore have the capacity to tolerate the small amounts of gluten that may appear in food through cross-contamination.

This isn’t the case for people with coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease and when gluten is consumed the body starts attacking itself, in particular the gut lining. This react can happen when only trace amounts of gluten are consumed, often from cross-contamination. Not everyone will feel any effect or experience any symptoms but the body is still going to be reacting to the gluten. This is particularly an issue if trace amounts of gluten are being consumed over an extended period of time.

Cross-contamination is the aspect of gluten free catering that friends, family and even some catering staff may not understand. An example is a very well-meaning team I meet with who very diligently purchased good quality, gluten free bread for their gluten free diners but placed this bread beside the standard toaster and spreads, not understanding that in doing so they were completely compromising the food provided.

What can you do to control some of these risks?

My first top tip regardless of the situation is to let people know you have coeliac disease. This is at the top of just about every list but really I can’t emphasis it enough. You will be amazed how many people do not mention it when eating out.

Many of the teenagers and young adults don’t want to cause a bother for the catering teams so are less likely to tell staff or to ask questions about the options available. Actually it isn’t just teenagers, my husband has a gluten intolerance and likewise – he doesn’t want to cause a bother. But someone is more likely to be “glutened” when hospitality staff aren’t informed.

Not only is it the best way of making sure you are going to get a gluten free meal – but caterers want you to tell them. Of course one expects that if food on the menu is labelled gluten free then it will be gluten free but when it is hectic in a kitchen then that red flag on the ticket really does make a difference. The waiting staff may also have useful information to help inform what you order that they may not mention it you don’t start the conversation.

That said – it doesn’t mean issues won’t arise.

So promoting the cafes and restaurants that do a good job is really important. Write reviews on their websites if you have a good gluten free experience. Put together a list of restaurants and cafes you trust. Share the list with your friends, family and with CNZ members.

I have a quick look on line to see what I could find when I entered “top wellington restaurants for gluten free meals”. There were two posts that seemed to provide reasonably solid information.  It is important to remember that the quality of food service can change over time especially if there are significant changes in staff or new owners so it is still important to look for up to date lists and be mindful of general practices when you visit a café or restaurant.

Some of the key cues I look out for include:

  • The food cabinet. Where are the gluten free items placed in the cabinet? Are they separated from the gluten containing items? Are separate serving utensils for the gluten free items?
  • Can the staff talk about their fryer? Most food outlets have fries on the menu. When you ask staff about their fries, are the staff able to tell you if they have a dedicated chip fryer? While I am talking about fries – wedges can definitely catch people out. Some brands have a wheat coating while others don’t. Are the wedges gluten free and if they contain gluten – are they fried in the general fryer or the chip fryer?
  • How is the bread toasted? Does the site have a dedicated gluten free toaster or use toaster bags? If an outlet says they can preparing gluten free burgers do the chefs toast the gf bread/buns, on the same area of the hot plate as all other buns, n a separate toaster or on a  clean tray under the grill away from the wheat based burger buns?
  • Are the service staff about to talk about the detail of the dish? This one can be a little harder to assess but a good example might be when you are asking if a burger can be made gluten free. Does the service staff pick this up as a cue and confirm to you the meat patty and the mayonnaise is also gluten free? Yes the burger can be made with gluten free bread but I have to let you know the meat patty has flour added?

Toaster bags are my next suggestion. It is worth having a stash of them at work and in travel bags. These can be used over and over again in the toaster or in a panini machine. It is a quick and easy way to avoid the cross-contamination at work or when visiting friends.

Likewise if you are in the situation of a buffet breakfast bar then a toaster bag would also be incredibly useful and reassuring for you.

Which leads me to my final point, avoid self-service bars if possible. But if you are in the situation of having to dine in a self-service environment – tell the catering team and get meal plated up back of house.

There may be gluten free dishes or items available but there is an incredibly high risk of completely unavoidable cross-contamination from the other diners. Typically people talk about utensils getting  used for multiple dishes, causing cross-contamination. But more likely it is simply one diner scooping up some scrambled eggs and tapping the side of the spoon on their gluten containing toast. The contaminated spoon goes back into the gluten free scrambled eggs. Job done.

So this brings me full circle – you may not want to highlight a point of difference but it is really important to let the staff know and in the situation of a self-service bar – get something plated up out the back.

A self-service style meal at a friend’s place is probably the most difficult situation to manage. Bringing a confirmed gluten free dish from home helps. Discreetly asking to be the first person to plate up a meal or to have a collection of gluten free options set aside before the food to presented at the table will also help minimise this risk. As seconds might be difficult to secure it may help to have a light snack before heading out and focus on the social aspects of the event rather than the food.

Finally I am going to touch briefly on the Dining Out Programme.

The Dining Out programme provides training and support to cafes, restaurants – anywhere someone with gluten intolerance might dine – so that the staff can reliably prepare food free from gluten.

Sites that sign up for the programme are provided online training for all staff, check lists to identify high risk areas and resources to help improve practices and reduce risk.

When the food service had completed all training and made all changes needed to their service they are then externally audited on their operations on an annual basis. Once a site has successfully passed their audit they can then promote themselves as a gluten free accredited site and will also be listed on the Coeliac NZ website.

Sharing food with family and friends is really important for our well-being. So today I have shared a few of the tips I think can help you eat out safely with coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance. Keep in mind a set of cues for good gluten awareness, promote the places that do an excellent job and let the staff know you have coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance.

Meg Thorsen is a NZ Registered Dietitian working in Wellington and a member of the CNZ Medical Advisory Panel.

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