Eating out with coeliac disease – why it’s still a challenge, and what can be done

Despite the improvements in availability of gluten free products in supermarkets, and awareness gradually improving, eating out is still a challenge for people with coeliac disease.

I was recently interviewed for BBC Look North on the subject, so thought I would write a blog post to expand on the points I raised and provide some thoughts on how things could be improved.

The situation now

Coeliac UK, which is the official charity for coeliac disease in the UK, run an accreditation scheme which offers support to restaurants to ensure they can cater safely for people with coeliac disease. This allows establishments to display the ‘gf’ symbol to show they work closely with Coeliac UK to offer gluten free food. Some big chain restaurants including Pizza Express and Prezzo and some independent places offer this, meaning you can eat there in relative confidence that you’re not going to get ‘glutened’.

Unfortunately, a lot of big chains and independent restaurants aren’t signed up so eating out is still a massive issue. A lot of places, rather than focusing on measures they can implement to reduce the risk of cross contamination, tend to simply say they ‘can’t guarantee’ their food will be free of allergens, leaving us to decide whether to take the risk or eat elsewhere.

It does seem to be more of a culture in this country of places covering their backs. When eating abroad particularly in places like Spain (and Italy I’ve heard) they seem so much more clued up and in general make every effort to cater for you. I’ve been lucky enough to have had some amazing experiences eating abroad, with waiting staff that are knowledgeable and go above and beyond to make sure your needs are met.

Some establishments in this country meanwhile have even gone backwards recently from offering a great gluten free selection, to now saying that they can’t guarantee it, or even removing their gluten free menu altogether. This is so frustrating as it means you have to research every time you want to eat out, as places you have eaten before may now not be suitable. Even restaurants which offer what they promote as ‘gluten free’ often isn’t suitable for coeliacs once you’ve asked questions about their processes and preparation.

There’s been quite a few occasions where I’ve either had to walk out of a restaurant (which is embarrassing) or worse still, sit and watch the rest of my party eat as places haven’t been able to cater for me. This obviously isn’t ideal and can lead to some tricky situations. At things like family or work parties you don’t necessarily have the choice of venue, and it can be easy to feel like you are being awkward when really you’re just concerned about your health.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding in this country as to what constitutes gluten free. The easy example is chips, which you’d have thought would be fairly easy to prepare gluten free seeing as they’re essentially just potatoes. However I’ve had so many occasions where I’ve asked if chips are gf to be told yes they are, but then when I’ve asked as a follow up if they use a separate fryer the answer is generally no. This is so important as if chips are fried in the same fryer as non-gf goods such as battered fish or onion rings, then the cross contamination risk makes them unsuitable for coeliacs and therefore not gluten free.

Cross contamination in general is something that I think a lot of people don’t understand. For coeliacs to eat safely they need their food to be 100% gluten free. That means not even a crumb of glutenous bread should be on the plate. It really shouldn’t be difficult to provide this.

The way forward

It wouldn’t take much for restaurants to be able to safely cater for coeliacs. As long as they’re using a separate area to prepare the food, with clean hands and fresh utensils then the contamination risk would be low enough that most coeliacs would feel confident that they could safely eat there.

Despite me probably sounding quite negative during this post, there are so many places that cater well for people with coeliac disease. One great example of a small independent establishment that cater for coeliacs brilliantly is Bunty’s in Lincoln. Despite having very limited space in the kitchen they have a great setup to ensure they can safely cater for people with coeliac disease. They keep their gluten free bread in an air tight container along with knives and chopping boards that are only used for gluten free prep. If such a small tea room like Bunty’s can do it, then it surely shouldn’t be much of an issue for larger places with bigger kitchens.

I would really like to see a lot more restaurants and cafes up their game with gluten free. With an estimated 1 in 100 people suffering from coeliac disease in the UK, establishments which aren’t taking the issue seriously are missing out on a massive market. Of course there will be an element of risk in eating out anywhere that isn’t a 100% gluten free restaurant. But by taking some, let’s face it, relatively small steps like ensuring there is a dedicated allergen free area in the kitchen to prepare food, and clearly marking the menu with suitable dishes, myself and lots of other coeliacs would be able to eat out with more clarity and confidence.

I’d like to see a lot more clarity on the menus themselves. Instead of printing a disclaimer to cover themselves, wouldn’t it be great if places showcased the processes and steps that they take to minimise the risk of cross contamination? This subtle shift in attitude would make eating out a far less stressful experience, and clearly show which restaurants are suitable and which are not.

I would urge any restaurants that aren’t sure where to start to get in touch with Coeliac UK and ask about their accreditation scheme as a starting point. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where the majority of restaurants display that little ‘gf’ symbol? Here’s hoping..

Coeliac Man out. X

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