If you’ve been gluten free long enough, you know that cross contamination is no laughing matter. In fact, even if just a crumb gluten coming comes in contact with your gluten-free meal, it can set off a cascade of painful symptoms in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. In this article, I define cross contamination and share all the places where it lurks. I also share tips for how to avoid cross contamination. This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
Nothing can sabotage a gluten-free meal 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 he uses to cook every other dish.
Even if you have a gluten sensitivity, you can be affected negatively by cross contamination and subsequent gluten exposure.
In this article, I define cross contamination, discuss where it lurks most, and share tips for how to avoid cross contamination altogether.
You can also watch this presentation I created for the Nourished Festival (March 2021) and I’ll walk you through the entire process.
What is Cross Contamination?
Gluten cross contamination occurs when food deemed gluten-free comes in contact with gluten somewhere along the way.
Here are a few examples where cross contamination often rears its ugly head. If you cannot eat gluten, you must be aware of these potential sources for cross contamination.
(1) Unclean Hands
A chef might handle a loaf of bread, then handle the lettuce without washing his hands. Crumbs from the bread are then easily transferred from the bread to the salad.
A chef might cut a steak cooked with soy sauce (which contains gluten), and then use that same cutting board to cut your gluten-free piece of chicken or vegetables.
Related Reading: 10 Surprise Products that Contain Gluten
(3) Meal Delivery
When the waiter brings your gluten-free meal to the table, he might stack a gluten-full dish on the tray. Bits of the gluten can then leak onto your meal. This exact ordeal happened to me at PF Changs. The sauce from one dish was dripping onto my gluten-free plate. Ack!
(4) The Toaster
Sure, the restaurant might offer you a piece of gluten-free toast to go with your omelet, but they will certainly toast the slice of bread inside a toaster inevitably used to toast gluten-y bread. No thanks!
(5) The Colander
The gluten-free pasta is often strained using the same colander as the regular pasta, allowing your gluten-free pasta to touch and come in contact with pasta that contained gluten. You then wind up eating more gluten than you bargained for. This exact scenario is what happened to my pasta dish at the Cheesecake Factory – and is why I found a stray gluten pasta in my gluten-free pasta.
(6) The Deep Fryer
Cross contamination lurks in many places, but the deep fryer is the biggest hotbed for cross contamination.
Just because a restaurant uses gluten-free batter on its chicken fingers doesn’t mean the chicken fingers are gluten free if they’re cooked in a deep fryer that cooks items that are battered in gluten.
French fries, for example, are naturally gluten free. However, when cooked in that bubbly oil shared with gluten-battered products, well, this is where cross contamination becomes a problem.
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.
(7) The Waffle Iron
That gluten-free waffle may be made with gluten-free batter, but if it’s cooked in the restaurant’s waffle iron, which is used to cook all waffles, gluten free or not, then your waffle will surely come in contact with gluten.
(8) The Griddle
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. No thanks!
Related Reading: Is the Griddle at The Original Pancake House Safe?
(9) 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, which will definitely contaminate the bin and products in it.
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 gluten-y salad dressing fall into the gluten-free salad dressing. It’s a mess! Be very cautious of cross contamination at buffets or skip altogether.
(11) The Mixer
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.
Tips to Avoiding Cross Contamination
While there is no foolproof way to know for sure if your food has been cross contaminated with gluten, especially when you eat and have untrusted the meal prep process to another person, there are a few precautions you can take to avoid it from happening:
(1) 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.
(2) Look for clues
Some restaurants use different colored plates or toothpicks to identify gluten-free items. These clues can be helpful in knowing how safely your dish was prepared.
(3) Ask for your dish to be served separately
Ask your server to bring out your dish on a separate tray from everyone else’s food.
(4) Ask your server how he knows it’s gluten free
He may 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 guide you in making an educated decision about whether or not you want to eat it.
(5) Test your food for hidden gluten
The Nima Sensor allows you to test a small sample sized portion of your food for gluten. It can detected rampant cross contamination in a dish, albeit it doesn’t test your entire meal for hidden gluten.
Related Reading: Watch how the Nima Sensor saved me from eating this pancake at Snooze!
(6) 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.
(7) Avoid pizza no matter how tempting
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.
If you enjoy eating pizza, check out my article that ranks the best frozen gluten-free pizzas (and I tested every single pizza for hidden gluten too).
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.
You can learn more about eating out safely in my book, The Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten Free.
I invite you to download my free Gluten-Free Safe Dining Card. You can show this card to your server to ensure you get a safe meal.
What other tips do you have about avoiding cross contamination? Please leave a comment to share.