Sometimes all it takes is a couple crumbs of the wrong food to make you feel ill. Since something that small can cause problems, you have to avoid cross-contaminating your food with gluten.
People with celiac disease have to be very aware of cross-contaminated food. But others may be less affected by it.
Cross-contamination is when gluten-free food is anywhere near food that contains gluten. It can occur in many different places including restaurants, jars of condiments, and even on your own kitchen counter.
But how can you make sure your gluten-free food is safe from cross-contamination? You’ll need to take steps to understand what cross-contamination is; know how and where it happens; and know how to be safe.
What is Cross-Contamination?
Cross-contamination — as it’s referred to here — is when you get something containing gluten (like bread crumbs) mixed in with your gluten-free food. Or it can happen when gluten-free food is cooked with the same appliance or in cookware as food containing gluten.
Gluten, even though microscopic, is a living organism. Most celiac and gluten intolerant individuals have to ingest it to get a reaction. Some are sensitive enough that just breathing flour dust or using topical products, such as shampoo or lotion, that contain gluten can cause a negative reaction. Even crumbs from a crouton can cause gluten sensitive individuals to have a reaction after eating a salad.
You can avoid ingesting unwanted gluten by being aware of the different places where cross-contamination can occur. For example, a deep fryer is pretty obvious as people tend to fry different food in the same oil. But where else can your otherwise gluten-free food be cross-contaminated?
Where Can Cross-Contamination Occur?
Cross-contamination can occur in your home, at your friend’s home, or at a restaurant. Anywhere that food is served and eaten.
It happens most often on kitchen countertops, grills or griddles. Or it can occur when bread crumbs are transferred from utensils to things like butter, mayonnaise or a jelly jar.
Cross-contamination happens when wheat flour dust is left on the same cutting board where vegetables have been sliced.
A pasta strainer is another problem area. Even if your gluten-free pasta is cooked separately, the pasta might be put in a contaminated container (and washing it with cold water won’t get rid of all the cross-contamination).
Maybe you’re looking forward to a summertime barbeque. Chicken or burgers cooked on the same grill where buns are toasted can cause you to get sick if you’re gluten sensitive. And don’t forget that restaurants use grills to cook all sorts of food, so cross-contamination can certainly occur there.
A salad mixed with croutons is contaminated even if you remove all the croutons.
Unfortunately, there are numerous ways your gluten-free meal could accidentally get gluten in it and make you ill. But you still have to eat and go on with your life, so how can you make sure your food is safe?
How Can You Be Sure Your Food is Safe At Home?
Your kitchen is an area you can control. Since you can make the decision where to store, clean and cook food, it should be a reliably safe place to make gluten-free meals. Here are some ways to protect food from cross-contamination:
- Make sure cooking surfaces are clean, and that no crumbs, flour dust, or other potentially harmful by-products are left on countertops.
- Make sure pots, pans, and cooking utensils are scrubbed clean.
- Use dedicated gluten-free cutting boards and pasta strainers. Never use them for anything else.
- Keep your food safe by boldly labeling the containers.
- Keep your gluten-free food sealed and separate from gluten food.
- Make sure everyone in your household knows how to handle the food, cookware, and post-cooking cleanup, even if they don’t have gluten issues. Their lack of diligence can cause other family members to become ill.
These are the main points to consider in your kitchen (I’ll talk about how to set up the kitchen to be gluten-free later on).
How Can You Be Sure Your Food is Safe Outside Your Home?
It is more challenging to prevent cross-contamination outside of your home. It is impossible to see what’s going on in the restaurant’s kitchen. You know someone is preparing your food, but you can’t see how it’s being prepared. For instance, it’s most likely that fries are cooked in the same fryer as other food, so I almost always avoid them or anything that might be cooked in a fryer as it’s not worth the risk.
So how can you protect yourself from cross-contamination when you can’t see the kitchen or the people handling your food? You can ask the wait staff questions about how the food is prepared (don’t hesitate to ask. It’s the restaurant’s responsibility to provide safe eating for its clientele, and you’re paying for the meal!)
Ask questions from different angles, such as:
You: Are your fries gluten-free?
Are the fries cooked in the same fryer as other food?
How can I be guaranteed my food hasn’t been contaminated with food containing gluten?
What procedures does your restaurant use to keep your food gluten-free?
How do you prevent food from getting cross-contaminated with gluten in your kitchen?
I need to ask these questions as I’m very sensitive to gluten, and you don’t want me getting sick at the dinner table.
Waiter: I’ll go ask the chef.
See how you can get clarification by asking follow-up questions? Of course there are no guarantees, but the willingness of the wait staff and chef to answer them as comprehensively as possible shows good intent.
It’s okay to ask these same kinds of questions of friends and family too. They wouldn’t want to cook something that makes you feel bad! Don’t hesitate to ask to read the labels of the ingredients they used, where they bought the food (i.e., organic store or standard supermarket), and how they cooked it.
Just make sure they know how much it means to have someone willing to make you a meal that won’t make you ill, and that they should not take your tummy issues personally. With the rising awareness of celiac disease and gluten issues, many people are well aware of the problems it can cause.
- All it takes is a crumb or two to cross-contaminate a gluten-free meal.
- Contamination can happen in restaurants and even in your own kitchen.
- You can protect food prepared in your kitchen by making sure cooking surfaces are sanitized, and your cookware is dedicated gluten-free. Also, be sure all gluten-free food containers or packages are clearly labeled to prevent accidental use.
- You can protect yourself by asking questions about how your food is prepared outside the home.
Unfortunately, you’ll occasionally get gluten in a meal, as there’s no way to avoid it 100% of the time. Be thankful to everyone who tries to accommodate you even if they sometimes fail. Your graciousness will encourage them to keep trying for you and for others they’ll be cooking for! Be diligent about asking questions to clarify how your food was prepared, and don’t be afraid to pass if something doesn’t sound right. A mantra to live by is “If you don’t know, don’t eat it!”
The one place you should be able to avoid getting gluten cross-contamination 100% of the time is in your kitchen. But how can you make sure it’s always a safe place to eat and prepare gluten-free meals? I’ll cover that in the next Lesson.