Going out to eat with a gluten allergy used to be a huge inconvenience, but these days, gluten-free foods are pretty much everywhere. How often have you read a restaurant menu and found the letters "GF" written next to a certain item?
Well, turns out, that label might not actually be totally accurate.
A new study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that more than half of 'gluten-free' pizzas and pasta dishes served in restaurants may contain gluten. Not only that, but about one-third of all supposedly gluten-free restaurant foods may have trace amounts of gluten in them, according to the study's findings. (Related: What the New Standards for "Gluten Free" Products Means for You)
"The long-suspected problem of gluten contamination in restaurant foods that have been reported by patients likely has some truth behind it," senior study author Benjamin Lebwohl M.D., director of clinical research at the Celiac Disease Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, told Reuters.
For the study, researchers collected data from Nima, a portable gluten sensor. Over the course of 18 months, 804 people used the device and tested 5,624 foods advertised as being gluten-free at restaurants around the U.S. (Related: How to Handle Your Food Allergies at Social Events)
After analyzing the data, researchers found that gluten was present in 32 percent of "gluten-free" foods overall, 51 percent of GF-labeled pasta samples, and 53 percent of GF-labeled pizza dishes. (The results also showed that gluten was found in 27 percent of breakfasts and 34 percent of dinners—all of which were marketed in restaurants as being gluten-free.
What might cause this contamination exactly? "If a gluten-free pizza is put in an oven with a gluten-containing pizza, aerosolized particles could come in contact with the gluten-free pizza," Dr. Lebwtold Reuters. "And it's possible that cooking gluten-free pasta in a pot of water that had just been used for pasta that contained gluten might result in contamination."
The amount of gluten found in these tests is still minuscule, so it might not seem like a big deal to some. But for those suffering from gluten allergies and/or celiac disease, it can be a much more serious situation. Even a crumb of gluten can cause severe intestinal damage for people with these conditions, so improper food labeling definitely raises some red flags. (See: The Real Difference Between a Food Allergy and Food Intolerance)
That being said, it's worth noting that this research isn't without its limitations. "The people tested what they wanted to test," Dr. Lebwohl told Reuters. "And the users chose which results to upload to the company. They may have uploaded the results that surprised them the most. So, our findings don't mean that 32 percent of foods are unsafe." (Related: Gluten-Free Meal Plans Perfect for People Who Have Celiac Disease)
Not to mention, Nima, the device used to gather the results, is extra sensitive. While the FDA considers any food with less than 20 parts per million (ppm) to be gluten-free, Nima can detect levels as low as five to 10 ppm, Dr. Lebwohl told Reuters. Most people with life-threatening allergies are likely aware of that and are already extra cautious when it comes to consuming foods that are claimed to be gluten-free. (Related: Mandy Moore Shares How She Manages Her Severe Gluten Sensitivity)
Whether these findings will prompt stricter regulations for restaurants is still TBD, but this research definitely brings awareness to the loose guidelines currently in place. Until then, if you're asking yourself whether you can trust a gluten-free label and you suffer from a serious gluten allergy or celiac disease, it's definitely better to err on the side of caution.
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