It’s Saturday morning, you decide it is the perfect time to try out the new breakfast place people are raving about. You don’t bother with looking at the menu because you like to be surprised. Your spouse does not have to eat gluten free, and you figure you can always eat your standby of fried eggs and bacon. You arrive at 7:45 AM and it is already starting to fill up. That has got to be a good sign! Everyone is friendly, and the smell is delicious and fantastic.
The restaurant is bright and new, but also has just the right amount of hominess. You can’t wait to try the food, especially because you had a friend tell you that they have a gluten free menu! You are seated and given menus, and you notice their GF menu is included in their main menu. What luck! They must really know what they are doing here. Then you notice something, at the top it says “Gluten Friendly” Not “Gluten Free”. What does that mean!? Are the pancakes even friendlier with gluten than the normal ones?
We are here to answer that question today, what is Gluten Friendly? How does it compare to Gluten Free? Even if you can eat gluten you may have even started to notice this more and more, “Gluten FRIENDLY”. Gluten friendly menus are becoming more prevalent in the restaurant industry. So what does it mean?
Has Something Changed?
Menus used to say “Gluten Free”, but now they are saying “Gluten Friendly”. Did something change? I would argue they have not, at least in general. It is perhaps more intellectual honesty, and frankly in general more helpful to us allergy people.
Most restaurants do not have the capability to have a completely clean and separate space to prepare allergen specific foods. Space is always at a premium in the kitchen. The ability to have an entirely separate set of dishes for preparation and the space that is always kept clean of allergens is just not feasible. Restaurants are typically willing to clean a section of grill for you or to use a clean pan. They do not have an entirely separate pan that never touches gluten, though.
Restaurants have typically had a statement at the bottom of their Gluten Free menus that state something like this. “While we strive to keep these menu items free from gluten, our kitchen is a mixed kitchen and we cannot guarantee that no gluten will come in contact with your food.” Menus have more or less information in that statement depending on the restaurant.
Gluten friendly in my opinion is now saying “Look, we want to be honest with you. We have called it Gluten free in the past, but both of us know that’s not possible in our environment. We use gluten free ingredients, and strive to keep things clean, but buyer beware cross contact with gluten may happen.” Not sure what cross contact is? Go check out our article on it.
They are striving to be honest about the extent of the situation and not promising more than they can deliver.
Is that Reasonable?
On the one hand I can certainly get worked up about that. “What do you mean you can’t guarantee my food won’t be gluten free? Am I not paying you money to be that way? Are you not professionals?”
Let us be reasonable though. What about in your home kitchen? Imagine you are making pasta to go with your steak and salad. While draining the pasta how many things around the sink did you possibly get pasta water on, completely and totally inadvertently? What about tossing the dressing with the salad, did you splatter some dressing over the side of the bowl?
Small contacts of various foods happen, no matter how clean you work. Imagine that you were tossing 45 salads or MORE an hour. Some spillover WILL happen. Restaurants want to work clean; it’s easier and more efficient. Towels and sanitizer to clean with are kept everywhere, wiping down and wiping up happens A LOT. In the middle of the dinner rush you do not have the time to thoroughly clean every surface with soap and water every time you spill though. You wipe it with a sanitizer towel and put the towel in the bucket and move on.
As allergen sensitive people, we also need to be honest about how we have helped shape the industry on this. We want to be able to order a gluten free pizza from Dominoes at the same time the rest of our family orders regular pizza, or a gluten free sandwich from Subway or Jimmy Johns. We desire easy access to basically the same food our friends or family want to eat at the same time.
Is it wrong for us to want to eat what our friends are eating? No! I LOVE having easy access to so many gluten free items. When I first started eating gluten free you practically could not find a single place that even knew what gluten was, much less had a gluten free menu that was not just a hamburger without the bun. So they are trying to accommodate a new group of people while still accommodating their main customer base.
Is Gluten Friendly an excuse for laziness? Could restaurants be note doing any extra cleaning, using the same dishes, not caring at all about the gluten free folks? That is possible, but I really don’t think so as a general rule. Yes, there are stories where people went to a restaurant and sent back food that had clearly been made incorrectly, and the answer they got back from the server or manager “well this is only a gluten friendly menu, we don’t guarantee gluten free” because they just did not care, but that is not the norm.
I do not believe that is the general response of the industry. I have experienced it in several places where I have requested clean dishes etc, even with “Gluten Friendly” menus and gotten a great response. People are people everywhere. Mistakes are made because we are fallible. Make sure to approach your server or the manager with friendliness and humility and things will go much better too. It is stressful at times to eat out and make sure your food is safe to eat, but taking that out on your server is not fair to them and makes you no friends either.
Remember these people are just trying to do their job, and you are only one of many people they have to deal with today. Your server should give everyone the best customer service possible. They may have just had the worst guest right before you who cussed them out for not giving them a straw, though, so be patient. As a restaurant manager for the last few years, I can say that restaurants want their customers healthy and happy – including people with allergies/restrictions!
What Does This Mean For You?
What does “Gluten Friendly” mean for you? Restaurants are striving to be honest; they want to feed people who are sensitive to gluten in addition to those who are not! They want us to understand though there may be cross contact and a lot is going on in the kitchen.
Are you sensitive to even the smallest amount of cross contact? Does even a crumb of bread in the butter make you sick? You should not be eating out at most restaurants, then. If you can find a restaurant that truly prepares their menu items gluten free in a separate space and that is kept totally clean, then maybe that is an option for you. But you should probably consider that to be even questionable.
Restaurants do have a responsibility to keep things clean and separate. As a consumer, we also have the responsibility to pay attention and ask questions. It is not right to expect the restaurant to take the entire burden of responsibility in regards to our own personal allergies. They are our allergies; we are responsible for making sure we eat safe. It is one thing if they are lying. It’s another thing if we are just placing blind trust in them.
Next time you go out to eat and they have a “Gluten Friendly” menu, don’t be afraid. Talk to them, ask questions, and make an educated choice. Eating out is supposed to be fun, don’t lose that fun just because you have allergies!
Have a tasty day!