Most American restaurant chains that cater to a gluten-free diet will have “gluten-friendly” menus. Now, this is considered a controversial move for many people with celiac disease. There’s a lot of gluten-free politics here, so as a celiac dietitian who’s been living with celiac disease for 10 years, let’s get into it!
BUT FIRST, if you’re looking for help with dining out while gluten-free, don’t forget to download my FREE Gluten-Free Restaurant Cheat Sheets.
These cheat sheets come with gluten-free and cross-contact guides to different common USA restaurant chains and cuisines to help you simplify dining out. Be sure to grab your cheat sheets here!
When talking about gluten-friendly menus, it’s important we know what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in barley, rye, contaminated oats, and wheat. It may be helpful to remember the acronym “BROW” when trying to remember what foods have gluten.
In baked goods, gluten holds things together working as a binding agent. It gives texture and chew to foods.
Most people can safely eat gluten. However, some people have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease which means they need to avoid gluten. It can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea and nausea as well as nonintestinal symptoms such as rashes, headaches, or joint pain.
Before we get into the politics of gluten-friendly menus, it’s important to understand the difference between gluten-free and gluten friendly.
Gluten-free in the USA has an FDA definition: containing gluten at <20ppm. However, this FDA definition only applies to food labels that are regulated by the FDA and do not apply to restaurants.
However, in general, gluten-free is understood to mean that something contains no gluten. Whereas gluten-friendly could mean that it contains no gluten but is at risk for cross-contact, or may have some questionable ingredients.
In this case, gluten-free is more well-defined than gluten-friendly, which could mean a lot of different things. But what’s most important to know is that in a restaurant setting, neither the term gluten-free nor gluten friendly have a regulated definition in the USA.
So what’s up with gluten-friendly menus at restaurants? Now that we know that gluten-free generally means no gluten and gluten-friendly means mostly/probably gluten-free, we can explore this phenomenon of gluten-friendly menus popping up everywhere.
These menus are essentially restaurants trying to accommodate the gluten-free community while releasing all liability if you were to get sick. This makes sense because there is a lot of cross-contact risks when dining out, so while something might be listed as gluten-free, restaurants can’t guarantee cross-contact won’t occur and render it not gluten-free.
Because of this, you’ll be pressed to find any restaurant that doesn’t either have a disclaimer about cross-contact or a gluten-friendly menu instead of a gluten-free menu. The bottom line is that they want to serve you but they don’t want to get sued if they mess up.
This is extremely frustrating for people with celiac disease who need to stick to a strict gluten-free diet. However, know that just because there is a cross-contact risk when ordering at restaurants, and just because restaurants are releasing themselves of liability for that risk, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get safe food.
So it sucks that restaurants choose to use gluten-friendly menus and release themselves of the liability of you getting glutened if you dine with them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dine with them safely.
Often many restaurants want to serve you safe food, they just don’t want the risk of getting sued for it. And while it can feel cumbersome to dine out in this way, there’s a lot you can do to minimize the risk of you getting glutened at restaurants.
Things like reviewing the menu and calling restaurants to verify cross-contact precautions can be taken with your food can drastically reduce your chances of getting glutened.
So while it’s scary, know that it’s totally possible to evaluate and take steps to mitigate the risks of dining at restaurants in the USA. And a gentle reminder, I give you some amazing tools to do this in my FREE Gluten-Free Restaurant Cheat Sheets. Be sure to grab your cheat sheets here!
This leads me to also say, regardless of whether it’s a gluten-friendly or gluten-free menu, neither means that the food you order off the menu will be automatically safe.
It’s important you’re doing your due diligence in verifying the gluten-free status of the menu options and ensuring that your food is prepared with cross-contact precautions.
This means you can’t just sit at a restaurant and order a gluten-free sandwich from the menu and expect not to get sick.
Instead, you need to verify cross-contact precautions to make sure your sandwich is prepared safely. This might look like “Hi, can you please tell the chef I have a severe allergy to gluten? Great, can I get the gluten-free grilled cheese and can you please make sure they grab the cheese from a fresh bin, butter the bread with fresh butter, change their gloves, and cook it in a freshly washed pan so I don’t get severely ill? Thank you!”
And yes, I know celiac disease is not a gluten allergy, but I find that restaurant staff are more responsive to food allergies because they are trained in them, rather than medical diets for autoimmune diseases. So I choose to say “allergy” instead of “celiac” because it’s really improved my chances of getting safe food.
And this is just one example of how you might specify the cross-contact precaution you need to be taken with your food. And remember, it’s important you’re specifying the gluten-free precautions you need to take with every single one of your orders: even if the restaurant already has strong cross-contact precautions.
I know it’s annoying and cumbersome but this is a huge reason on why I rarely get glutened when getting sick.
Gluten-free and gluten-friendly restaurant menus out of the way, I know dining out can feel extremely scary and cumbersome.
I want to take a minute and let you grieve the way that dining out has changed forever. And remember, while it will look different, just because dining out has changed, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do with celiac disease.
This is why to help encourage other people with celiac to dine out, I am giving away FREE Restaurant Cheat Sheets to common restaurant chains and cuisines in the USA!
These cheat sheets cover gluten-free menu items at specific restaurants, generally safe orders at different cuisines, and scripts to help you order PLUS cross-contact points to be aware of along the way.
If you want more help with dining out, be sure to download your copy of these Restaurant Cheat Sheets here!