May is Celiac Awareness Month: Calling all Servers, Chefs and Bakers

picnic table

May is celiac awareness month. And, I want to reach out to the food service industry in hopes to help celiacs increase their confidence when eating out. I want celiacs (myself included) to enjoy eating out again, not fear it and not avoid it.

Celiacs love food.  We love eating out.  But, much of the time, we are secluded from the joyful experience of sharing food with others or designated to eating salad time and time again.  Look, I love my vegetables.  I am a dietitian, of course!  But, there comes a limit to my salad intake.

The problem seems to stem from the lack of knowledge of celiac disease including how to prepare food safely for a celiac.   It also comes from the assumption that celiac = a meal free from gluten ingredients. Which, of course, it is. But, that’s only half the story.

Just as important of a meal free from gluten ingredients, is a meal prepared in a manner that reduces the risk of cross contamination as much as possible.  Celiacs know that, but more often than not, the food service industry doesn’t seem to recognize or care about the importance of this.

I’ll be honest, I have had amazing servers and chefs cater to my needs. Especially this chef, my friend Aaron Dennert, an okanagan caterer located in Kelowna, BC. He makes amazing food. Literally, to die for. And, it’s celiac safe. So, yeah, no need to say anything more.

But, overall, I have had more poor experiences than good. I’ve had my share of eye rolling, the comment that ‘oh yeah, it’s gluten free’ (which makes goosebumps run up my spine because we know as celiacs, it is not that simple), or refusal of washing pans in the back before preparing my meal. I’ve heard and experienced it all, like many other celiacs.

I want to bring attention to this and increase awareness of the severity of celiac disease so let’s dive in and talk about celiac disease and eating out.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. When somebody with celiac disease ingests gluten, the body recognizes the gluten protein as a foreign invader but instead of attacking the gluten protein, the body mistakenly attacks itself, hence autoimmune. In the case of celiac disease, it attacks the villi (small fingerlike projections) in the small intestine that absorb nutrients. Damage to the villi results in malabsoprtion, nutrient deficiencies and symptoms.

Symptoms can include:

  • Headaches/migraines
  • Muscle pain
  • Rashes
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • bloating
  • Gas
  • Intestinal pains

The irony is many celiacs will not experience any symptoms. This group of celiacs are called asymptomatic celiacs. However, they still experience the damage to the small intestine.

When a gluten free diet is not strictly followed, the risk of developing other autoimmune conditions increases. There are more than 80 autoimmune conditions including lupus, hashimoto’s thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and more.

What is a Strict Gluten Free Diet?

Here’s a great visual: Imagine a slice of bread.

Gluten free bread

Now, imagine breaking that slice of bread into 100 pieces. It is just one of those tiny crumbs that is enough to induce the autoimmune response in someone with celiac disease and cause damage to their small intestine. The individual may develop symptoms or the individual may not experience any symptoms (called an asymptomatic celiac). The main point is, the damage still occurs regardless of whether the person develops symptoms or not.

Celiacs Are Scared to Eat Out

You read that correctly. Did you know that many celiacs are scared to walk through your restaurant door for fear of getting sick? We are scared because our concerns are not taken seriously. Many are continually anxious about the eating out experience.

We worry. We worry pretty much constantly in the days leading up to, during, and after the eating out experience.

We worry about the ingredients being used because we know gluten hides in sneaky places (often we are much more knowledgable about gluten than the chef and server). We worry about how the meal is prepared in the kitchen and hope proper precautions are made. We hope the server and/or manager actually communicates our needs to the kitchen/chef.

We are on high alert for any hint of symptoms resembling what we in the GF community call being ‘glutened.’ For the asymptomatic celiacs, we will never know if we got ‘glutened’ but may experience ongoing damage from eating out increasing the risk of developing other autoimmune conditions.

How Careful Do You Need to Be?

A good analogy is to compare celiac disease to a peanut allergy. Although celiac disease is not an allergy and is an autoimmune disease (a different immune pathway in the body), comparing it in this way communicates the severity of celiac disease.

  • Would you call a baked item peanut free if it was made in the same facility as peanuts? No.
  • Would you make a meal peanut free in a kitchen, without first washing your hands or changing gloves? No.
  • Would you use the same pans, cutting boards, and cooking utensils for someone ordering a peanut free meal? No.
  • Would you make a peanut free meal without first confirming that the individual ingredients are, indeed, peanut free (either through your food supplier, the nutrition label or the individual inquiring for a peanut free meal)? No.
  • If you were uncertain at any point whether the dish or baked item was not suitable for the individual requiring a peanut free meal/baked item, would you just assume it would be fine? No.

Now substitute the word “gluten” for the word “peanut”. The answer is still the same. And, there are far more precautions to be taken, but you get the point loud and clear.

Of course, no one wants to deliberately cause anyone pain or damage. But, there is an overwhelming misunderstanding of the severity of celiac disease within the food service industry.

The thought that celiac disease just means ‘a meal free from gluten ingredients’ is far from what is needed to properly address an individual with celiac disease. It takes effort to avoid minuscule amounts of gluten that could come into contact in the preparation of the meal.

It takes the same care and avoidance of the allergen that would happen for a peanut allergy.

Of course eating out is a risk and always will be a risk for those with celiac disease or for anyone following a restrictive diet for their health. BUT, this does not negate the need to include appropriate precautionary methods to reduce risk as much as possible.

The Gluten Free Food Program (GFFP): Increase Revenue By Catering to the Gluten Free Community

GFFP is a food program targeted specifically targeted to the food service industry to help restaurants learn to serve and prepare food appropriately for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. If you want to build a new customer base, the GF community can help your business grow. By partnering with GFFP, you will gain the trust of celiacs and those living with gluten sensitivity. The trust is everything when it comes to the GF community.

Did you know that:

  • There are 2.66 million Canadians affected by gluten?
  • You may gain 2.5 additional customers as gluten free diners typically eat out with 2-3 people?
  • 48% of the GF community are willing to drive 45 minutes to eat in safety?
  • 65% of the time, the gluten free diner in the party chooses the restaurant location?
  • 74% of GF diners would eat out at least once a month (that’s 59 million people)?
  • 90% will return to the restaurant if they are satisfied and provided with a safe meal?

The gluten free community is reluctant to eat out. These are new customers waiting for the restaurant and food service community.

Are You a Chef of a Restaurant, a Baker, or a Caterer in the Okanagan?

If this article resonates with you, please get in touch with me as I want to highlight restaurants, chefs, bakers, and caterers in the okanagan who, truly, want to improve the eating out experience for celiacs.

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