Monday, July 25, 2011

Little Miss Cross-Contamination Detector (And when "gluten-free" ain't so gluten-free)

It's a picture of me!  Little Miss Cross-Contamination Detector!  Complete with a typical hive breakout after I have ingested gluten!

Probably the most frustraiting thing about being gluten-free for medical reasons is having to find out, the hard way, when things are not really gluten-free.

In the past few weeks I've had allergic reactions (and as you can see by the picture, this means a fun breakout of hives all over) to canned beans, pine nuts, rice, and "gluten-free" soup.  All things that should be fine, but were not.


It doesn't take much to impact someone who is sensative to those items.  We've all heard stories on the news about some people's reactions to peanut allergies that sadly, result in death.  It's not typical for celiacs or adult-onset wheat allergy folks like myself to have a reaction that drastic, but once you start saying the word "allergy" some people can get really scared about serving you anything.  Before our last trip to Vegas I was researching food options and I contacted one place that was on our bucket list for Vegas, Hot 'N' Juicy Crawfish.  I just wanted to know if they had any soy sauce or wheat in their seasoning and I gave a list of usual things that might cause a problem.  The email response I got?  "Maybe you better not eat here."

Thankfully I found the Las Vegas celiac group and someone there confirmed that really, the place was fine for anyone with problems with wheat.  And we did eat there, and I had no problems afterwards.

But a couple of weeks ago I met a friend for lunch and I ordered two things off their "gluten-free" menu - soup and a salad.  And when I ordered I did also mention I had a wheat allergy and asked if they could ask the kitchen staff to be careful.  I got my salad and started picking it apart, and promptly found a piece of pasta in the salad (they place has small tube pasta in some of their salads).  I brought it back to the servers, they apoligized, and then they brought me a fresh salad.  But I still ended up getting sick, and since then I've not been able to get a response from them if they use a dedicated pot for their "gluten-free" soup - I suspect they do not, and that was enough cross-contamination to have me in misery for a couple of days.

I understand the risks in eating out.  There are places that are usually fine - a bunless burger from Five Guys when you ask them to please put on new gloves before handling your burger, salads from Wendy's (all their croutons are in packages), my local Jimmy Johns will make me a sandwich on a clean surface and take all meats/cheeses from the bottom of the stack of meats so they aren't covered with crumbs.  I can eat at our local taco place if I get a tostada (whenever I go they are also usually heating bread for tortas on their flat-top grill which means even corn tortillas are out, and their toastadas are fried offsite by the tortilla makers in oil used only for tortilla chips and toastadas) and one of the meat options that is also not heated up on the grilltop.

Cross-contamination can also come early in the process... in the processing of raw ingredients.  That canister of cornmeal you have in the cabinet?  Guess what, it's not gluten-free.  They also process wheat flour, and it is enough to contaminate the cornmeal. I've pretty much given up on dried lentils since the ones I find always, ALWAYS, also have a grain of wheat in the bag.  One time I didn't look before I added them to a chili, and then a wheat grain bobbed to the surface.  I had to throw out 10 pounds of chili.

And a lot of places now will have a "No Gluten Ingredients Used" disclaimer on their product.  Which is NOT the same as gluten-free.  You can use the cornmeal from the example above - cornmeal on its own does not contain gluten - but if it is already cross-contaminated, you're going to have problems.  And I've come to learn that tricky statement usually always means it really does contain enough trace gluten to cause problems.

All that said... gluten-free is still not something to be totally scared of.  I do not maintain a wheat-free kitchen, or household.  I will cook and serve regular pasta to my husband, I keep fluffy white wheat bread on hand so he can have sandwiches and toast (I did have to give up the toaster to his wheat toast and if I want toast, it's broiler city for me), he'll eat fast food sandwiches.  If I have a sauce for the pasta, I'll put some aside so my hubby can serve himself from that dish (he's a smoosher of pasta sauce into his pasta and he always forgets and uses the spoon he's using to serve himself and then flops it right back into the container without thinking).  I try to keep a side of the sink clean so if he's had bread or pasta he can put his dishes right in there and they will be scrubbed before they go into the dishwasher.  If wheat bread was used in any form, the counters get wiped down when I am cleaning the kitchen.  There is no "X second rule" in our house - if it touches the ground, it goes in the garbage.  And I haven't had a problem in MONTHS from anything within my house (well, that wasn't a contaminated ingredient).

It's not that hard to at least make a good-effort to do gluten-free when you're not in a gluten-free environment.  It just takes some work.


That Word Guy said...

Bummer. Next time we'll have to brown-bag it and go to a park!

MrsVJW said...

Considering they are usually very good about responding to emails (I had a zillion when they first announced their gluten-free menu) and they still have no answered me... I figure they're guilty and they just don't want to admit it. Since then I already opted out of a "let's bring in lunch for the group" event simple 'cause I really can't trust their food anymore.

H.Peter said...

For your next trip to Las Vegas: