Eating out is a lot of fun. There are so many delicious cuisines to explore, whether choosing a restaurant in one city or dining out around the globe.
However, this simple social necessity of making a menu selection can be a nightmare for someone who has a gluten intolerance.
Gluten is a protein substance present in some cereal grains such as wheat and related grains such as barley and rye. On the positive side, gluten gives elasticity to dough and helps it rise. Also called seitan, it’s also a potent source of protein for vegans.
The problem arises for someone who is gluten-intolerant or has celiac disease. The latter is an autoimmune disorder that occurs in the small intestine in people genetically susceptible to a substance in gluten called gliadin. But many more people have an intolerance or allergy to gluten. Symptoms can range from mild tiredness or constipation to diarrhea, migraines and even infertility. There’s no cure. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet.
Following this type of diet isn’t easy. Wheat is found in so many foods (think everything from bread and pasta to flour used as a thickening agent in endless recipes).
The No. 1 concern for those following a gluten-free diet when traveling is how to eat out healthfully in restaurants, according to research reported in the 2010-published Understanding Gluten and Allergen-Free Experiences Worldwide – Global Perspectives of Consumers, Hospitality & Foodservice.
First, know what a gluten-free diet is inside and out. Many foods in their plain or unprocessed form are gluten free. This includes meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and most dairy products.
The grains or carbohydrate-containing foods that are gluten-free include amaranth, buckwheat, cornmeal, flax, millet, quinoa, rice and tapioca as well as specifically labeled gluten-free flours made from rice, potato or beans.
Always avoid wheat (which also goes by the names bulgur, durum flour, farina, kamut, semolina and spelt), rye, triticale and barley. Barley is found in many non-obvious places and labeled as malt, malt flavoring and malt vinegar.
Second, do your homework. Research restaurant menus online. Some restaurants will specifically identify gluten-free selections. Or look up the names of particular dishes in a specific cuisine to see from what ingredients they are made.
You can also look for online help. For example, the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America maintains a searchable index of restaurants that offer gluten-free menu choices or can accommodate gluten-free diners (www.glutenfreerestaurants.org). The folks at Gluten Free Passport (glutenfreepassport.com) sell pocket-sized books and mobile phone apps that make it easier to eat-out gluten-free around the world.
Third, beyond gluten as an ingredient, consider how a food is prepared and if cross-contamination could occur. If you don’t have a chance to plan ahead, ask your server for specifics on how a dish is prepared. If he or she doesn’t know, ask to speak to the chef. Chefs like to please their guests and are usually happy to cooperate and accommodate.
Fourth, realize that sometimes you need to pack your own food when traveling. Airport delays, sketchy airport fare or airline meals and arriving to your destination after most restaurants have closed are all times when you’ll want to have packed something along. This can be as simple as a gluten-free power bar, bag of nuts or dried fruits.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.