Just How Strict Is That Gluten-Free Diet?

While I was consistently impressed with the willingness and ability of San Francisco restaurants to accommodate my gluten-free diet, there was one strange issue that came up during my stay. At several spots, including Millennium, a vegan restaurant located in the Hotel California, the staff asked me how much tolerance I had for gluten. “I have celiac disease — that means I can’t have any gluten at all,” I explained (I didn’t get into a discussion of the European Union’s standard for gluten-free products, or the proposed standard that is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration). The staff said that they just wanted to be sure, since some diners have told them that they’re on a gluten-free diet, but when they’re informed that there’s a little soy sauce in the dish they want to order, they claim that isn’t a problem for them.

My husband and I debated what this meant. Doesn’t everyone diagnosed with celiac disease know that they can’t have any gluten at all? But a post I recently read on another blog helped give me some perspective. On Gluten-Free NYC, David Marc Fischer wrote about an article, “The Top 10 Functional Food Trends,” published by Food Technology, a publication of the Institute of Food Technologists. The article discusses how the market for products catering to food allergies and intolerances continues to grow, disproportionate to their true medical base. It’s a depressing story to read, because while the demand for gluten-free products is growing, it isn’t driven by a sudden upward spike in the rate of celiac diagnosis. As the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness points out, 97 percent of people with celiac disease in the US have no idea they have it. A lot of people consuming gluten-free foods are doing so for reasons unrelated to celiac disease. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s terrible to give restaurants the impression that the gluten-free diet is just another lifestyle choice, rather than a medical necessity for 1 in every 133 people.

At Millennium, I ended up having a long conversation about safe and unsafe ingredients with the staff. (Couscous? Definitely not. Spelt? Fine for those with a wheat allergy but dangerous for celiacs). I started with the red quinoa timbale, which is constructed of toasted pine nuts, pickled clamshell mushrooms, peas, and avocado. I followed up with the Injera Crepe, made of chickpea flour and filled with Savoy cabbage, English peas, and pea shoots, and served with a carrot chutney. Millennium also offers some very fine cocktails, including the sweet Tamarind-Grapefruit Margarita and the unusually spicy Fire & Ice. In addition to an excellent meal, I got a reminder of why it’s important to be well-informed about the fine print of the gluten-free diet.

Millennium [address] 580 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 [tel] 415-345-3900 [web] www.millenniumrestaurant.com

4 thoughts on “Just How Strict Is That Gluten-Free Diet?

  1. Hi Hilary,
    I’ve also noticed a trend towards eating gluten free as a lifestyle choice, rather than from medical necessity. In the blogosphere alone there are some new blogs whose authors have chosen to go gluten free to lose weight, get rid of headaches etc
    Here in South Africa, there is a cafe which sells “gluten free” pancakes made of spelt! When I pointed out spelt was not gluten free, the owner said all her gluten free clients can tolerate spelt!! Only those who choose gluten free, I think. It is so damaging in a country where the medical gluten free diet is so poorly understood.

  2. OMG — I knew this was coming!!!!! I have seen comments on Gawker and Celiac Chicks that imply the perception of “gluten free eating” is a hypochondriachal lifestyle choice. Crap. I have even seen “gluten free” being made fun of in a kids’ movie. FYI, the movie was Daddy Day Camp, and in it an annoying, overprotective uber-mom is seen fussing over little junior’s snack which ir organic, GF, and a few other things. I was upset over seeing that as well.

    Please continue to patiently educate. One of my celiac children has a potentially fatal nut allergy as well, so it is pivotal that we are taken seriously when we describe our food restrictions.

    So, where’s the scoop on SWitzerland???? 🙂 Heidi (NYC)

  3. Talk about timely — a reader just alerted me to the fact that Oprah Winfrey’s show today featured a 21-day “cleanse” that eliminates gluten from one’s diet (as well as sugar, caffeine, animal products, and alcohol). The program was designed by Kathy Freston, author of Quantum Wellness. Oprah is doing the 21-day cleanse, and is featuring it prominently on her website:


    The reader also mentioned that, in response to a question from Oprah about how difficult it would be to cut out gluten from her diet, Kathy Freston said she didn’t need to worry about eliminating gluten completely.

    I haven’t read Quantum Wellness, and I have no comment on the efficacy of the cleanse (there are certainly many positive testimonials for it on Oprah’s messageboard). But I worry that Oprah following a trendy diet — one that tells you to cut out gluten, but not completely — is going to make the gluten-free diet famous for all of the wrong reasons.

  4. Just for a different perspective – I haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease but I do find that I have problems digesting gluten. My problems aren’t as severe as a celiac’s would be but I do normally follow a gluten free diet. My reactions vary depending on the type of wheat and even the location (for example, I can tolerate a little bit of bread in Europe but not in Canada – they have different wheat there; I don’t have a problem with oat products. On the other hand, even a tiny piece of naan from a nearby Bangladeshi place messes me up for a week).

    I think there are many people who do find that wheat bothers them but don’t have full fledged celiac disease. In fact, most of my family (my mom, sister, aunts, cousins etc.) have varying reactions to wheat but no one has been formally diagnosed with anything (other than my uncle who was a celiac baby but now refuses to believe he has a problem). I’ve brought this up with my doctor but he pooh-pooh’s it so I just continue to eat gluten free.

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