Gluten Free 101

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Gluten-free breadUntil recent years, “gluten” was a word few diners cared much about, let alone restaurant chefs and servers. At its core, gluten is a protein composite generally found in foods containing wheat, rye, barley, malt, and other grains. It’s gluten we have to thank for making dough rise and for providing airy structure to baked goods.

But it’s not all chewy bread and fluffy cakes–for a growing number of people, gluten consumption is the cause of intense intestinal discomfort. While the degree of gluten intolerance varies drastically, the most severe form is celiac disease, a digestive disorder where ingested gluten destroys the intestine over time, preventing absorption of nutrients.

Gluten is found in most processed foods, even those that don’t specifically list wheat or grains as ingredients. Consequently, a gluten-free diet typically eliminates all processed foods as well as foods containing wheat and grain products.

Gluten-Free PizzaThe gluten-free diet has grown in popularity in recent years. Many people, even those without a doctor’s formal diagnosis, adopt the diet with the hope of reducing discomfort and improving quality of life. Others, equating the diet with a healthy way of eating, adopt it with the hope of losing weight, leading many to question whether gluten-free is just another in a long line of diet fads.

Gluten-Free - Deviled Eggs

Despite the debate, increased public awareness has led to more gluten-free options at restaurants. While this makes dining out easier and more enjoyable for those with gluten intolerances, cross-contamination (which can occur when gluten-free foods are prepared in the same kitchen space or with the same utensils as foods containing gluten) is a lingering concern. Precautionary measures must be taken to avoid cross-contamination, including separate pizza pans for gluten-free pies, different pots for boiling gluten-free pasta, dedicated gluten-free fryers, and distinct gluten-free prep areas. Most importantly, chefs, cooks, and servers must be knowledgeable about the impact cross-contamination can have on their patrons.

Tips for eating gluten-free at a restaurant:

  1. Call the restaurant to verify it can accommodate your diet restrictions.
  2. Inform the server of your allergy and/or diet restrictions.
  3. Ask if the restaurant has a separate gluten-free menu or a list of gluten-free items.
  4. Ask how the food is prepared to alleviate cross-contamination concerns.
  5. Don’t be afraid to send your order back if it has been incorrectly prepared.

Urbanspoon can help you find restaurants who accommodate gluten-free dining. Just look for the Gluten Free Friendly feature!

This article was written for Urbanspoon by by Mary Cowx of

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