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​“It was just a crumb”

All About Food | October 9th, 2014

To someone with celiac disease that “crumb” could wreak havoc on their lower intestine and cause crippling pain. Not all sufferers of this disease are that sensitive to small amounts of gluten, but like radiation, it stores itself in the body until it reaches a critical mass. So what might seem minor in fact will be a major issue down the road. Just follow the crumbs.

“Gluten Free,” you see it everywhere these days and even people without gluten sensitivity have got on the band wagon avoiding gluten in their daily diet. A while back I went gluten free and was astonished and pleased at the weight I lost in a short period of time. For those with celiac disease (an acute sensitivity to gluten in any form) this is not a passing fad but a necessary part of life.

Any amount of gluten they consume attacks the villi in the small intestine creating discomfort and pain. The villi are small fingerlike projections that promote absorption of nutrients into the body. Gluten destroys them and it can take up to a year for them to get back to normal. It was amazing to learn that one in 100 people worldwide are, to some extent, gluten intolerant. Some inherit the disease. For others, it can lead to type 2 diabetes.

As a professional chef I am concerned about the integrity of gluten free offerings on restaurant menus. I have guests who are on gluten free diets and I do what I can to meet their needs. I am cognizant of the responsibility that comes with putting (GF) on my menu. In talking with friends, who live in the sphere of gluten intolerance, I became acutely aware of how, without proper knowledge of where gluten resides, a cook could unwittingly serve gluten to a gluten intolerant person.

The obvious carriers of gluten are wheat, barley and rye. But gluten manifests itself in places we don’t readily think of. When you think of gluten, wheat is the first thing that comes to mind, as in bread and pasta. But it shows up in commercial salad dressings, cereals and soups as well. Barley, another gluten mainstay, is frequently used in food colorings, soups and malted liquids like beer. Rye has a lower profile in breads, beer and cereals.

But avoiding gluten is not easy. Like not eating a sandwich or ordering a pizza. You have to read labels as gluten is used in a large amount of processed foods and non-foods as well. Energy bars, granola, potato chips, candy, salad dressings, processed meats, veggie burgers and even communion wafers. One of the least thought of and most pervasive gluten ingredients sneaking into foods is soy. Yes, that healthful soy along with oats can have high quantities of gluten do to cross contamination from wheat. Lipstick, vitamins, medications and even Play-Dough all contain gluten.

There are other concerns for the home kitchen and more importantly for the professional kitchen that are offering gluten free items. Cross-contamination is a major concern when considering a gluten free existence. For gluten-sensitive people we are back to that “crumb.” That shared scoop at the bulk item bins, shared containers of any kind, the cutting board and even the deep fryer at your neighborhood restaurant. As crazy as it might sound, celiac sufferers who go out for breakfast should bring their own toaster. Because toasters hold those crumbs and there is no way any restaurant, other than a gluten free one, can assure you, the sufferer, that the gluten free bread you brought along to toast is safe.

Segregation, a word we have avoided for decades, is back, but only in the sense of keeping items such as flour away from your gluten free products. Plastic storage bins along with Teflon pans get scratched and will hold gluten. Measuring devices such as cups, when double dipped will contaminate a kitchen with gluten. The airborne dust from working with flour will affect a celiac sufferer. There are a lot of things to consider before you say a kitchen is gluten free.

We managed the vegetarian awakening of the ‘80s and thanks to the likes of Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein, white tablecloth restaurants began featuring vegetarian tasting menus. Then came the wave of vegans, and the restaurant industry absorbed that shock wave, embracing the needs of a few, but an important few. The minority was quickly becoming a voice to be heard. And now we have gluten free. Much more complicated than tossing some veg on a plate, a misstep in the kitchen has consequences, potentially serious consequences for the unwitting diner.  

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