There’s a good chance some of the “gluten-free” dishes you order when dining out aren’t truly gluten-free. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one-third of restaurant meals—and more than half all pizzas and pastas—labeled gluten-free actually contain enough of the protein to cause trouble for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Although the Food and Drug Administration oversees gluten-free claims on packaged foods, capping the allowed gluten content at 20 parts per million, there are no such regulations for menu items at restaurants. This creates a big risk for millions of Americans. For those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, consuming even trace amounts of gluten can cause inflammation that damages their intestinal lining. Meanwhile, people with nonceliac gluten sensitivity may experience stomach upset, nausea, joint pain, headaches or brain fog after eating foods containing the protein.
To find out exactly how vulnerable we are to unknowingly consuming gluten at restaurants, some 800 researchers tested the actual gluten content in 5,600 “gluten-free” dishes from eating establishments across the U.S. Using portable gluten sensors, they determined that 27 percent of breakfast offerings and 34 percent of dinner entrées contained at least 20 parts per million of gluten. Pizza and pasta proved the biggest offenders, with half of those labeled gluten-free actually harboring gluten.
However, restaurants likely aren’t trying to fool us. Rather, the researchers believe the bulk of this unsuspected gluten is the result of cross-contamination in restaurant kitchens. So, while a food may be delivered to the kitchen being truly gluten-free, once it is handled, stored, cooked and served alongside gluten-containing foods, it may pick up small amounts of the protein—enough to potentially trigger a reaction in patrons with celiac or gluten sensitivities.
For instance, a gluten-free pizza baked in the same oven as a gluten-containing pizza would be vulnerable, as would gluten-free noodles boiled in the same pot as regular pasta. The fact that gluten was detected in more dinner items than breakfast selections suggests that these types of contamination risks accumulate throughout the day as more and more food is handled.
An important thing to keep in mind about these new findings is that the majority of gluten-free dishes tested were in fact gluten-free. So in most cases, those who need to avoid gluten will be safe. The problem, though, is there is just no way to know for certain, so be cautious when eating out. It may also be wise to pass on gluten-free pizzas and pastas since those run a higher risk of gluten contamination.