We've Got Issues: February/March 2018
Irreverent solutions to your real life allergy & sensitivity dramas.
I’ve been gluten-free for three years now but instead of it getting easier, I feel it’s getting harder. For example, dining out is so hit or miss! It’s such a crapshoot that I’m thinking about stopping with all the questions when I go out to eat because it stresses me out so much, especially when the server gets irritated at me. Can I stop doing this and just figure it out on my own? If I choose menu items that are naturally gluten-free, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference anyways.
Back it up, friend. You’re headed for a brick wall. I know because I’ve been there. Like during my entire trip to Paris. So I get it.
It’s annoying to start every meal outside your own home with, “I’m sorry—but I have a few hundred questions.” And yes, sometimes servers or chefs or hostesses get irritated with you. But you know what? They may also get irritated with the following:
-“Sauce on the side” people
-A double work shift
-Running out of the daily special
-Getting hit on by drunk dudes
Restaurant staff have been hearing a lot more about gluten lately, so most are familiar with gluten-free customers. Some (or many) of these diners are gluten-free by choice, not medical necessity. Diners in the latter group—like you and me—need to ask questions. We need to be taken seriously. We actually get sick and have long-term repercussions if we eat gluten or our food gets contaminated. So it’s on us to express that clearly and accurately to the people who handle our food. Maybe if you look at these conversations as a public service rather than something just for you, you’ll feel better about asking questions.
People who work in the hospitality industry are used to special requests. This is why we tip them well when we’ve had a good experience.
You do need to go through the gluten spiel and you do need to ask about food being prepared in pots used for gluten, frying pans used for gluten, and any other surface your lobster thermidor will be touching.
So ask away. And remember, you’re probably not the most annoying person they’ve served all day.
This may be a weird question but I haven’t been able to figure it out. Whenever I eat out, I always ask what’s in the meal I’m being served. I get the usual list of ingredients—chicken, potatoes, butter, etc.—but I wonder about the spices. Not being a chef, I don’t know what is actually in the different spices used to season my food. Could I be getting gluten through spices?
To Spice or Not to Spice
I did a deep dive into your question and discovered this topic is a bit tricky. So I enlisted the help of Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, the woman behind Gluten Free Watchdog, an online product testing site for gluten-free consumers.
Spices are single-ingredient foods that are naturally gluten-free—until they’re processed and packaged. Which is why Thompson tested various spices for gluten contamination on Gluten Free Watchdog. Her findings revealed that some brands of spices contained over 20 parts per million gluten. (The FDA requires less than 20ppm gluten for gluten-free labeling.)
Before you freak out over your cumin (which I did, briefly), here’s how Thompson explains why spices shouldn’t worry us too much: “Each 1-ounce serving of a product containing 20 ppm gluten contains 0.57 milligrams of gluten…. A typical bottle of spice purchased at a grocery store contains 0.5 to 2 ounces of product. Think about how long it takes you to use the entire bottle of spice. Also think about the amount of spice called for in a recipe and how many servings that recipe provides. The bottom line is that the amount of gluten you would ingest if you ate any of the spices tested by Gluten Free Watchdog would be very low. In general, these results are not cause for undue alarm.”
I reached out to five major spice companies to see if any of them could reassure me about the safety of their product in terms of gluten. Two companies—Penzeys Spices and McCormick—responded in a manner that may make you feel better about your guacamole.
Asked about the processing and possible contamination of their spices, Penzeys replied, “In order to protect against possible cross-contamination, every lot that we package is tested for gluten. No wheat products are packaged in our facility.”
McCormick stated they will always declare gluten ingredients on their packaging and that gluten will never be hidden under the notations of “spices” or “natural flavors,” adding “Our McCormick facilities have allergen, sanitation and hygiene programs in place. Our employees follow good manufacturing practices and are trained in the importance of correct labeling and the necessity of performing thorough equipment clean-up and change-over procedures to minimize cross contact of ingredients.”
This refers to single-ingredient spices. Spice blends, seasoning packets and premade sauces may contain gluten. So always read ingredient labels carefully. When dining out, stay away from suspiciously seasoned items or ask to see the seasoning package so you can check out the ingredients.
Lastly, a reminder for all of us with food issues: Be aware of manufacturing practices. If a product is prepared in a facility that contains gluten and it isn’t kept separate and/or the equipment isn’t thoroughly cleaned, there is a risk of cross contact and contamination.
Editor’s note: For more about products (like some spice brands) that may test positive for gluten, watch this instructive video from Gluten Free Watchdog.
April Peveteaux is author of Gluten Is My B*tch: Rants, Recipes and Ridiculousness for the Gluten-Free (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), The Gluten Free Cheat Sheet (Penguin Group), and, Bake Sales Are My B*tch (Rodale).