“Sorry, we no longer offer a gluten free menu” is a phrase you’ll likely hear more frequently as gluten free restaurant menus quietly disappear. Even many restaurants that were once toying with the idea of offering gluten free dishes have since scratched their plans to do so.
Let’s be clear – I don’t share this news to be a negative nelly, but rather to alert and inform my friends who, like me, must live gluten-free. I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone both talking to experts in the field directly dealing with this issue as well as questioning restaurants in an attempt to get a sense of how extensive this problem is.
Restaurants that don’t want to lose customers are shifting to unsafe and unregulated terms which do not mean that your food will be gluten free. To the unsuspecting patron or a gluten free newbie, trouble is bound to ensue putting people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and other autoimmune issues that are aided by being gluten-free at real risk for getting sick.
Are Gluten Free Restaurant Menus Going Extinct?
One Friday evening, my husband and I were hoping to eat out with friends of ours at a new Uncle Julio’s restaurant which opened near me in Plymouth Meeting, PA on March 9, 2013. Like the proactive and savvy gluten free gal I am, I called Uncle Julio’s to inquire if they had a gluten free menu.
“Yes, we have a gluten free menu,” the hostess answered, “well… it’s gluten-friendly.”
“What’s gluten-friendly mean?” I asked.
“Umm, well… hold on, let me pass you to the manager,” she smartly replied. I appreciated that she knew she was over her head in answering my questions and directed me to someone who would know.
When the manager answered the phone, again I asked about the meaning of “gluten-friendly” to which she replied, “Our facility isn’t gluten-free, so there’s always a risk, but we do our best not to contaminate your food.”
Good answer. I could appreciate her honesty.
“There’s plenty on our menu you could have like our chips. They’re gluten-friendly because corn doesn’t have any gluten in it, but they are fried in the same fryer as our other food with gluten so they are okay,” she continued.
“Umm, those chips aren’t gluten free anymore if you fry them in the same oil as other food containing gluten. They are 100% contaminated,” I replied rather bewildered and simultaneously happy that she’d kept on talking.
“Well, we haven’t had anyone complain about that so I don’t know what to tell you,” she answered.
Needless to say we did not go to eat at Uncle Julio’s restaurant. This was the first time I was exposed to the term “gluten friendly”. To double check that it wasn’t just this one location, I called three other Uncle Julio’s in other parts of the US to speak with managers and kitchen managers asking the same exact questions. Each time, I received the same exact worrying answer. I then called the Uncle Julio’s headquarters and requested to speak to someone about this matter and I’ve yet to receive a return phone call.
Since this incident and with all the traveling I’ve done in the past several months to various cities all over the US promoting The Savvy Gluten-Free Shopper book, I’ve now encountered multiple restaurants with similar scenarios listed as gluten free on apps like Find Me Gluten Free which use unregulated, meaningless terms to sell customers unsafe food.
I’ve even encountered a supermarket chain in Texas called H.E.B that stopped offering gluten free food despite having been trained and certified to serve such food and now serves “low gluten diet” food instead. I did reach out to H.E.B and, though they responded to my initial request, they did not answer any of my questions. (Note: the picture shown here was taken by Karley Mac on 3/10/14 at the H.E.B market in Austin, TX.)
Gluten-Free gone bust?
Though we can agree that gluten free turned into a fad that many have lamented and loathed, the silver lining was the explosion of gluten free options available at restaurants and grocery stores.
Then in what felt like a huge victory for the gluten free community, the FDA finally defined the term “gluten free” and how it could be used in relation to food and supplements in August 2013. A year was given so that food producers could comply making August 2014 the deadline.
But one area that was not readily talked about in the hub-bub of the FDA victory was restaurants. For those not in the know, food at restaurants must also comply with the ruling that any food labeled gluten free must fall below the 20 ppm threshold. Suddenly restaurant owners were faced with a big conundrum – go 100% gluten free, test every single dish that leaves their kitchen in order to comply with the ruling, stop serving gluten free food, or come up with similar wording (ie. “gluten friendly”, “low gluten diet”) that totally skirts the FDA ruling.
The first two options are pretty impractical for most restaurants (no matter how much many of us would love if places went 100% gluten free). Meanwhile, the third and fourth options are becoming a fast reality since compliance is near impossible for a restaurant afraid that a patron at any moment will cry foul and land them in hot water. Cross contamination is a real problem for kitchens because of human error and even something like flour can waft through the air making formerly gluten free ingredients no longer safe. Testing all the dishes for their levels of gluten is possible, but that is highly impractical, time consuming and a huge financial and time hurdle for an already busy staff.
And thus, we’ve hit an unintended wall that all the good intentions helped facilitate. To be clear, I’m in no way blaming the many advocates out there who help to bring awareness and move the issue of gluten to the forefront of the dietary conversation. I’m just not sure that any of us could have imagined that this was going to be such a massive side effect.
Who’s to blame
The answer to why gluten free restaurant menus are disappearing was rather surprising. Jennifer North, Vice President at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), pointed to legal departments concerned that their clients simply can’t comply with the FDA ruling. Rather than totally upend the restaurant to accommodate gluten free diners, they felt it was just better to totally stop offering gluten free food.
Part of the problem is that “the FDA ruling has inconsistent and confusing language” when it comes to restaurants, stated North. Testing food to “20ppm becomes problematic because kitchens can’t validate the status of each dish.” Instead, legal teams feel the hurdle is just too high to attempt, so gluten free menus end up getting pulled or those in the works are now getting nixed.
Joy Dubost, Director of Nutrition for the National Restaurant Association, concurred with North that they anticipate a drop in the number of gluten free options that will be available to consumers. Their organization is working side-by-side with the NFCA to educate restaurants on how to safely serve gluten free customers and advise “restaurants interested in doing so to go through a certification process to train both the front and back of the house.”
Otherwise restaurants turn toward terms such as “gluten friendly” which doesn’t carry the same legal risk. Dubost stated that “gluten friendly will be used more to try to capture people getting gluten free options who aren’t concerned about their health.”
What you need to know
North advises those with Celiac Disease or other medical reasons for avoiding gluten to stay far away from any foods labeled “gluten friendly” and “low gluten”. Since the terms are not regulated, the restaurant is off the hook for doing whatever they normally would to go the extra mile to serve you safe food.
As a result, there’s little recourse for the restaurant patron who eats potentially gluten-contaminated food, according to Dubost. “The responsibility is on both parties [the restaurant and the customer] and you still need to convey that you have a particular health condition.” If you suspect you get glutened from clearly marked gluten free food, you’ll “just have to go back and talk to the restaurant.”
What to do if you end up at a restaurant using one of these sketchy terms after finding them on a gluten free app? Jason Elmore, Founder and CTO of the Find Me Gluten Free App said, “We’d definitely recommend that customers leave reviews no matter what their experience was. Our platform is mainly crowdsourced and meant for people to share information and make personal decisions based on the collective information, and we do not endorse any restaurants ourselves.”
That means you can’t depend on a gluten free dining/restaurant app anymore for giving good information especially since the status of many restaurants is likely to change in the coming month. Always call ahead and speak with a manager and question anything they say that sounds suspect. If you’re new to eating gluten free, you can check out this out to learn how to get savvy, know how to spot the red flags at restaurants and talk to the staff to eat safely.
To offer a hint of sunshine beyond what seem like stormy clouds ahead for the gluten free diet, North shared that the FDA is aware of this problem and is working on enforcement and compliance for restaurants. Hopefully the “language will change so that each dish doesn’t have to be tested.”
Keep in mind that despite these hiccups in the FDA ruling, North pointed out that “food safety is now a part of the national conversation because it’s connected to medical necessity.”
So hang in there, ask questions and don’t assume the next time you sit down at your favorite gluten free restaurant that they’re still offering a gluten free menu. Your vigilance might just keep you from getting fooled into eating unsafe food and thus glutened.