My grandmother had diagnosed celiac disease for as long as I can remember. Decades ago, she struggled to obtain gluten-free foods. Gluten-free crackers were often purchased at specialty shops; harder-to-find gluten-free breads had to be purchased via mail order. If she were alive today, she'd be amazed by how much gluten-free products have proliferated the market, not to mention the fact that mainstream restaurants now sometimes have entire gluten-free menus. Thinking back on how hard it used to be for her to maintain her gluten-free diet, today’s flourless bounty almost seems too good to be true. Well, new research says it actually kind of is.
A study from researchers at Columbia University determined that an astounding 32 percent of “gluten-free” restaurant menu items tested contained gluten. And those findings came after testing over 5,600 menu items from across the country over the course of 18 months. As might be expected, the worst offenders were “gluten-free” pizzas and pastas, with the study finding that about half of these items tested positive when analyzed with portable gluten-detection devices.
“It’s a big deal,” Dr. Benjamin Lerner, lead author of the study and an internal medicine resident at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, told Today. “Approximately 1 percent of the US population has celiac disease. For those patients, exposure to gluten in their diet can cause various symptoms—nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain. But also it can cause damage to their intestines.”
So how can so many restaurants be so wrong? “We think it’s really an issue of contamination, not willful tricking people,” Lerner said. “Having gluten-free ingredients is not enough to ensure that gluten isn’t making its way into the food.” Lerner said that something as simple as preparing gluten-free pizzas or pasta in the same space as the gluten-packed versions could lead to cross-contamination. Government regulations may also play a role: Though the Food and Drug Administration has rules for gluten-free labeling on products, restaurants apparently don’t face similar oversight.
All that being said, Lerner also put out the reminder that, even though 32 percent of menu items might have failed their gluten test, 68 percent are still passing with flying colors. Yes, there’s room for improvement, but compared to ordering your bread from a mail order catalog, it’s still a lot better than it used to be. “Just understand that a gluten-free label at a restaurant shouldn’t be taken at face value,” the doctor added.