Nothing can sabotage a gluten-free meal safe for someone with celiac disease more than cross contamination. Cross contamination is everywhere, from the dreaded deep fryer to the chef cooking your food in the same pan as everything else. Even if you have a gluten sensitivity, you can be affected negatively by cross contamination and subsequent gluten exposure.
In this article, I’ll discuss where cross contamination lurks most, other sources for cross contamination in a restaurant, and how to prevent cross contamination from happening to you and ruining your gluten-free meal!
Where Cross Contamination Lurks Most
Cross contamination lurks in many places, but the deep fryer, well, that’s a celiac’s nemesis. In it, gluten is lurking, ready to sabotage your gluten-free meals via gluten cross contamination.
Don’t let a restaurant’s pretty gluten-free menu fool you with its sesame chicken, egg rolls, chicken fingers or french fried potatoes. These items are notorious for being cooked in the same deep fryer as items loaded with gluten. Cross contamination is rampant in the deep fryer. Eater beware.
The problem is that most restaurants don’t understand that just because you use a gluten-free batter on your chicken fingers, it doesn’t mean the chicken fingers are gluten-free if you cook them in a shared deep fryer. French fries, for example, are naturally gluten-free. However, when cooked in that bubbly oil shared with gluten-battered products, well, Houston, we have a cross contamination problem.
The best way to know for sure about whether your deep-fried food is safe to eat is by engaging your server – or the manager – in a conversation. Ask if the deep fryer used to prepare your meal is a dedicated gluten-free fryer or one that is shared with gluten-containing products. Be savvy and watch for cues from your server that give away that your food might be glistening with gluten cross contamination. If your server says the fryer is dedicated gluten-free, he or she will understand your question and have no hesitations about telling you it’s safe for someone with celiac disease. If she doesn’t know, you can almost guarantee yourself it’s not safe and that gluten cross contamination is present.
You need to know for sure if the fryer is shared because you can get REALLY sick eating food cooked in a shared deep fryer!
When decoding a gluten-free menu, look for these common items that are typically deep-fried. Even if they are marked “gluten-free”, a unknowing person might think they’re gluten-free because the product itself is gluten-free, but the person doesn’t realize that cross contamination is rampant in the shared deep fryer.
These are the most common deep-fried foods you must be suspicious of gluten cross contamination when eating out:
- French fries
- Fried chicken
- Fried appetizers
- Corn or tortilla chips
- Corn dogs
- Onion rings
- Breaded Chinese food dishes (sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken)
- Chicken fingers
- Chicken wings
- Egg rolls
- Fish sticks
This list is by no means exhaustive – it includes only the most common deep-fried items I’ve come across on everyday restaurant menus.
Other Potential Sources of Cross Contamination
I just went on and on about the deep fryer, but cross contamination truly lurks everywhere in restaurants. Here are some common scenarios:
Salad: You ordered a salad without croutons, but the server noticed that the chef put them on anyway. The server simply removes the croutons and serves you the salad. Your salad has been compromised.
Bulk Bins: Bulk bins contain all sorts of products from quinoa and rice to oats and barley. People often use the same scooper to scoop up all products… and who knows if the bulk bins are ever cleaned too.
Buffets: Buffets are cross contamination cesspools. People use the same tongs to grab gluten-free items as they do to grab the gluteny items. Drips of gluteny salad dressing fall into the gluten-free salad dressing. It’s a mess! Be very cautious at buffets or skip altogether.
Gluteny Hands: At Chipotle, the server will use his hands to grab lettuce and cheese. It’s the only two items on the line where he doesn’t use tongs or a spoon. You’ll want to ask for an unused cheese and lettuce and for your server to his change gloves.
Griddles: Gluten-free pancakes are often cooked on the same surface as the gluten stuff. Same goes for grills. Meats marinated with soy sauce contaminate a surface, then your “gluten-free” meat is cooked on top of it at a later time.
Toasters: When you order gluten-free toast, it’s likely a gluten-free piece of bread is simply toasted in their normal toaster oven. Same goes with waffles. Make sure the restaurant is using a dedicated toaster or waffle iron.
Pasta: When you order gluten-free pasta, chances are the restaurant is draining the pasta in its regular strainers that have been contaminated with gluten bits. Worse, they might be cooking your gluten-free pasta in the same water as the gluten pasta.
Glasses: I always prefer to use a straw, whenever possible, just in case there are any gluten bits stuck on a glass from the last person using it. Whatever you do, don’t share your drink with anyone. They can contaminate your drink too.
Utensils: When you unwrap your utensils from the napkin, place them on a plate or napkin, not the table. You don’t know if the table has lingering gluten bits on it.
Overflowing Plates: A long time ago, PF Chang’s brought my gluten-free meal out but it was overlapped with a gluten-full dish. Some of the gluteny liquids ran over onto my plate. The dish was ruined.
Desserts: Some desserts are mixed in an electric mixer that often has flour up in its crevices. Opt for handmade desserts or desserts brought in from a dedicated gluten-free baker.
How to Prevent Cross Contamination
As you can see, the deep fryer is just one of many ways your food can get cross contaminated when prepared in a restaurant.
While there is no foolproof way to know for sure if your food has been cross contaminated, there are a few precautions you can take:
Be firm with your server: There are many trendy gluten-free dieters out there. Tell him you’re not one of them. Ask him to take your request seriously. Speak with the manager if you feel uncomfortable with your server’s ability and knowledge about this process.
Look for clues: Some restaurants use different colored plates or toothpicks to identify gluten-free items.
Ask for your dish to be served separately: Don’t allow them to put it on the tray with everyone else’s food; ask for a special delivery of just your one dish.
Ask your server how he knows it’s gluten-free: He will tell you that he picked it up from a specific location, verified it with the chef, etc. See what he says and use those as clues to allow you to make a decision about whether or not you want to eat it.
Use your Nima Sensor: This is the BEST INVENTION since gluten-free 1-to-1 flour blends in my opinion!! The Nima Sensor allows you to test a small sample sized portion of your food for gluten. I’ve written about the Nima Sensor in depth in this article. Watch how the Nima Sensor saved me from eating this pancake at Snooze!
Eat As Naturally Gluten-Free as Possible: While an egg omelet can still be cross contaminated, it’s more likely that the pancakes and toast will be. Try to order as naturally gluten-free as possible to avoid snafus.
Pizza: Remember, pizza is often prepared along the same assembly lines and cooked in the same ovens as regular pizza. If you’ve made pizza before, you know that flour is everywhere in a pizza kitchen. Proceed with caution when it comes to eating out America’s favorite food.
Cross Contamination Words of Encouragement
Eating out is never easy, but it’s an essential part of living life. Use this information to be smart about how you eat out… and do your best to protect yourself from gluten exposure.
What other tips do you have about avoiding cross contamination? Has this article helped you? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.