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Common Cross-Contaminated Menu Items

Sauces, Dressings, Dips, Spreads and Gravies

Okay, you’ve ordered what you think is the safest dish on the menu – a salad with grilled chicken. What could go wrong? The dressing! Remember the old saying “the secret is in the sauce"? Well at GFP we say “the gluten is in the sauce.” Believe it or not, wheat is added to many salad dressings and sauces either on it’s own to help thicken, or in a hidden ingredient like soy sauce. Also, many times vinegar is used in dips and spreads, and if grain vinegar is used then that dish is potentially contaminated (see Hidden Sources of Gluten).

Cross-Contamination RX: You’ve got a couple options here. The first is always ask the server if the sauce/dressing/dip/spread is gluten-free. Have them check with the chef if they are not sure and/or hand them your dining card (see Eating Out). Second, simply ask for the sauce on the side or for the dish to be made without sauce altogether. You can also see if the chef would substitute a gluten-free olive oil garlic sauce as a replacement. Third, carry your own dressing. Before you leave home, pour a portion of your favorite gluten-free dressing into a small Tupperware container and carry it in your purse or pocket to add to your dish when it arrives.

The Grill

This one is a toughie, and particularly important to those with highly sensitive celiac disease (CD). Here is the scenario: a busy breakfast restaurant cook has pancakes cooking on the griddle right next to the egg omelet you’ve ordered. During the course of the morning, is it possible that residue or crumbs from the pancakes co-mingle with the eggs? You bet. Same goes for the breaded fish cooking next to your steak. Shared spaces run the risk of cross-contamination in any instance unless the restaurant is 100% gluten-free or they have specified designated gluten-free areas and spaces. And also, on the topic of breakfast, be sure to double check that sausages do not contain gluten-containing flours as a filler – many do!

Cross-Contamination RX: Opting for boiled or poached eggs will generally mean they are cooked in their own pan, reducing the possibility for exposure. If you ask for steamed vegetables and cheese on the side, then you can do the assembly at the table. Same goes for other grilled items. Fish can be poached or steamed, and even broiling can be a safer option than the grill.

Deep Fryers

Maybe you are lucky enough to visit a restaurant that offers breaded items that are gluten-free (like rice flour battered calamari). But if they are using the same frying machine for cooking gluten-containing items like onion rings, then the oil itself can become contaminated. Yes, molecules that small can make a big difference for highly sensitive folks. Some restaurants are catching on that people still can’t have items dipped in the same oil, and have designated fryers specific to gluten-free items only. You’ll want to ask your server about that if you are considering a fried food item.

Cross-Contamination RX: Again, be sure to ask your server if the same fryer is used for gluten and gluten-free items. If so, play it safe and chose something else from the menu. You can also ask if that item can be baked in it’s own pan rather than fried.

The Toaster Oven

Yahoo! You’ve found a place that offers burgers served on gluten-free buns! Liberation, right? Not so fast. Remember, restaurants move lots of food…quickly. So your gluten-free bun gets put in the toaster right alongside and just on top of where gluten-containing bread products have passed through. It slides through machine and kicks out at the bottom, on top of a bunch of crumbs. That bun is now contaminated.

Cross-Contamination RX: Ask your server if the gluten-free bun, roll, toast, etc. is toasted in the same toaster as the gluten-containing one. If so, politely request that yours be heated in a pan on the grill. Tip well! If that request is unable to be met, go with the old stand-by; bun-free or on a piece of lettuce or cabbage.

The Double Dip

In one evening, a chef can have dozens of different pots and pans going at once - pasta here and the alfredo sauce there, the BBQ chicken here, and rice over there - which increases the liklihood of the "double dip." An Italian restaurant that offers gluten-free pasta? Excellent, until the new kid on the job uses the same spoon to stir the boiling pot of gluten-free pasta that he just took out of the pot with wheat-based lasagna noodles. Oops - contaminated!

Cross-Contamination RX: Compliment your server for the fact that a traditionally wheat-laden restaurant would think to offer gluten-free pasta. It’s a step in the right direction! Then inquire whether or not they’ve designated certain utensils like spoons and pots and pans as gluten-free only? No? Then a salad with poached fish might be the better choice.

Plating

In a rush, a cook accidentally throws two pieces of gluten-containing toast on top of your omelet and the server whisks it out to you. Is it okay to just take the toast off the eggs and eat away? Unfortunately not. Same goes with croutons or the accidentally breaded shrimp that came out on your salad. To be safe, you need to consider the entire dish contaminated. This is especially important to those with highly sensitive CD.

Cross-contamination RX: Very politely explain to the server that you need to have the meal re-made so that no food item touches anything that contains gluten. Let them know that if you eat anything with gluten or has been in contact with gluten you will get very sick.

Airborne Contamination

At the iconic pizzeria, the skilled crust maker tosses the doughy mass into the air for it to swirl into extension, then catches it on the way down. Fun to watch, not so fun when the flour flies through the air and lands on your steamed vegetables. Bakeries, pizza joints, Italian bistros or any other type of restaurant that use gluten-based flours as a main ingredient have a high potential for cross-contamination. While many offer gluten-free pizzas, breads, cookies and so fourth, if they come into contact with that flour from the spinning crust, then the party is over.

Cross-Contamination RX: This is a good opportunity to explain to your server that you are highly sensitive to gluten and even a slight contamination will make you sick. Ask if they pre-make gluten-free items and store them away from gluten-containing ones. Maybe it is a 100% gluten-free bakery in which case you can feel a little safer. You can also ask the server to request that your dish is prepared out of the way of flying flours. However even with these precautions, you can’t be completely certain that your food is safe.

 

So yes, we know that eating out and remaining free from potential cross-contamination can be challenging, stressful, and at times overwhelming. But please refer to the above tips and suggestions. When in doubt, opt on the safe side by eating at home or carrying a safe snack/dressing with you. If there is a place that you frequent often, it might also be worth filling out a comment card or trying to reach the owner during off hours to let them know how much you love their restaurant, how often you’d like to eat there, and any concerns you might have.

Of course, you could always start your own 100% gluten-free restaurant and watch the crowds come in!