Vacation Planning for Celiacs: Cruises


It turned cold very early this fall in New York, as it has in much of North America. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of taking a vacation somewhere warm. One thing that I’ve never tried is a cruise. I’ve taken day-long boat trips in places like Newfoundland and Chile, but that’s just not the same thing.

My daydreaming may have been inspired by a reader, Barbara Collins, who wrote to me in July to share her fantastic experience onboard a Holland America cruise ship. You can read her letter in this post. It was extremely encouraging to hear that a cruise line would go above and beyond the basics to take care of a wheat-allergic and gluten-intolerant traveler.

What I’ve discovered so far is that many cruise lines seem willing to accommodate people on gluten-free diets and other special diets. Each cruise line seems to have a different policy on the subject. Most seem to have a special requests form that you must fill out, often weeks in advance of your cruise. While I haven’t tried any of the following cruise lines — yet — all of them sound pretty great.

Carnival: “Guests with special diets can be accommodated on Carnival Cruise Line,” boasts the company’s website. In addition to gluten-free, Carnival offers meals for a range of special diets, including vegetarian, low sugar, and low fat.

Disney Cruise Line: While advance notice is required to accommodate special diets — at the time of booking the cruise is strongly recommended — Disney is able to prepare meals for an incredible range of special diets. Vegetarian options are widely available on its ships, as a matter of course.

MSC Cruises: Given that Italy is a world leader in celiac awareness, it’s no surprise that this Italian cruise line takes special care of its gluten-free guests. However, there are different offerings on its different vessels. According to MSC’s website, “MSC Cruises works closely with the AIC-Associazione Italiana Celiachia (Italian Celiac Association) to provide gluten-free menus in the restaurants of MSC Fantasia, MSC Musica, MSC Orchestra and MSC Poesia cruising in the Mediterranean and in Northern Europe. On MSC Splendida, MSC Lirica, MSC Opera, MSC Sinfonia, MSC Armonia, [and] MSC Melody, guests can find pre-packaged gluten-free products like snacks, biscuits, croissants, plumcakes and muffins.”

Princess: This cruise line emphasizes “personal choice dining” so there are plenty of options. Gluten-free, dairy-free, salt-free, MSG-free, and vegan meals are all available — when arranged for in advance of sailing.

Royal Caribbean: Special diets this line accommodates include gluten-free, low-sodium, and low-fat. They are also happy to accommodate those with food allergies. These meals should all be arranged in advance. Note that vegetarian meals are also available without any advance notification. As Royal Caribbean says, “We make every effort to accommodate our guests’ dietary requirements whenever possible.”

I’d love to hear about your cruise experiences. Please let me know how well you were able to eat while at sea.

Gluten-Free Bliss on the Upper East Side


Until recently, I had never visited the Central Park Zoo. I’ve long been a fan of the Bronx Zoo — who doesn’t love its 265 acres of lions and gorillas, elephants and giraffes? — but the tiny zoo nestled into Central Park near East 64th Street had never interested me. How much could you fit into a tiny spot like that, anyway?

Plenty, I discovered, when visitors came to town and wanted to check it out. The Central Park Zoo — run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, just like the Bronx Zoo — is a tiny gem. It doesn’t have sprawling spaces for its residents, so it focuses mostly on smaller creatures: red pandas, snow monkeys, Falkland Island penguins, tamarins, and lemurs, to name a few. There are just a few large enclosures for bigger creatures, such as polar bears and snow leopards. And, of course, there are sea lions. You don’t even have to pay admission to see them. They’re visible from the pathway outside the park, and if you visit at 11:30am, 2pm, or 4pm, you can watch them being fed, a treat in itself.

It’s also a short walk from a wonderful restaurant I’ve discovered recently: L’Absinthe, on East 67th Street. The place is set like a dream of a Paris brasserie: pale walls and dark wood paneling set off by mounds of greenery, with an old-fashioned long bar, antique-looking mirrors, and framed posters from the turn of the last century. The style of service could be from the last century, too: it’s thoughtful, patient, and charming. But when it comes to celiac disease, L’Absinthe is entirely modern. When I told my server that I’d need advice about what to order since I have celiac disease, he amazed me.

“Gluten,” he said, “is insidious. It’s in so many things.” He went on to list several ingredients that could contain gluten, including Worcestershire sauce. I was overjoyed. How often do you find that level of awareness?

Thanks to some great guidance from the server and the kitchen, I tried a salmon tartare appetizer and duck confit main dish. Both were delicious — true bistro classics that were done just right. Still, what impressed me most was the service. That, and the fact that afterwards I was just a short stroll away from a visit with the sea lions.

L’Absinthe [address] 227 East 67th Street, New York, NY 10065 [tel] 212-794-4950 [web]

Reader Reports for Celiac Awareness Month


October is Celiac Awareness Month, so there’s an uptick in coverage about the disorder and generally about gluten intolerance. A couple of the better pieces that have been published lately: “Gluten-Free: Is It for Me?” by Daphne Oz on and “Why Common Foods May Hurt Your Health” by Dr. Jon LaPook on The Huffington Post.

Everyone knows it’s Halloween at the end of this month, but parents of children with celiac disease and/or food allergies need to hear about the Halloween candy list that’s available from Sure Foods Living. Keep in mind that this list was compiled using American sources. Canadian parents, when you read that Smarties are free of gluten, know that this is not true of the popular Nestlé treat, but of an American candy that is unrelated but shares the name. Also this month, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness hosts a Gluten-Free Cooking Spree in San Francisco. It will take place on October 30th; check the NFCA site for details and ticket information.

Some Gluten-Free Guidebook readers also have advice to share. Carolina, who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, recommends one gluten-free spot:

There is a place called CeliGourmet here in Buenos Aires that sells food to take out. It has all sorts of things, such as crepes, tarts, pizzas, sandwiches, empanadas (typical local food). There are also many kinds of cake, like cheesecake, chocolate cake, tiramisu, etc., and a variety of breads. There are two stores: one in General Paunero 1927 – Martinez (like half an hour out of town) tel, 4798-2990, and one in Thames 1633 – Palermo Soho, in town, tel 4831-5162.

To my ear, Buenos Aires sounds more and more like a gluten-free paradise. Reader Silvia Basualdo Róvere shared some local restaurants in this post and in this one. If you visit Buenos Aires, check out Oleo, a website that allows you to search for city restaurants that serve gluten-free meals (“comidas para celiacos”). There are currently 300 places on the list!

Another reader, Sybil, left an incredibly helpful comment on my post “Gluten-Free Fast Food at the Eaton Centre.” In it, she mentioned that the Druxy’s Famous Deli in Toronto’s Commerce Court kept gluten-free bread in its freezer. I’d never heard about Druxy’s offering gluten-free options, but Peter Druxerman, the company’s vice-president of marketing, confirmed it. Right now it’s just a test program — the only Druxy’s with gluten-free bread is the one in Commerce Court — but it’s one that Druxerman says the company would like to expand.

Next summer, if you’re visiting Ontario’s spectacular Stratford Festival, take a tip from another reader, Marilyn, who shared this:

We twice visited the festival last summer, and we were able to order ahead, by phone or online, for a gluten-free picnic lunch that we picked up from the Festival Theatre lunch bar. We found the food and beverage supervisor very helpful in discussing options, and the food was excellent!

If you go, the Festival Theatre Café is located at 55 Queen Street, Stratford, [tel] 1-800-567-1600 or 519-271-4040. According to the website, picnic lunches need to be ordered at least 48 hours in advance.

Many thanks to Carolina, Sybil, and Marilyn for their terrific tips. Please keep them coming!

Reporting Accurately on Celiac Disease

Some frightening headlines about celiac disease have been circulating lately. My inbox has been filling up with gems like these: “Study Finds Increased Risk of Death for Patients With Celiac Disease,” “Celiac Disease Raises Mortality Rate,” and the blunt “Celiac Disease Raises Risk of Death.” These stories aren’t coming from fringe sources or anonymous blogs. According to the Los Angeles Times,Those With Less Severe Symptoms of Celiac Disease May Be at a Higher Risk of Death.”

Talk about media hype.

These reports came out of the same study, which was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in its September 16th issue. (Unfortunately, the study is only available online to JAMA subscribers; there is a summary from Medscape that’s available from Google’s cache). It was performed by Swedish researchers, who did a retrospective cohort study. In layman’s terms, that means they didn’t track live celiac patients. Instead, they sifted through years of medical data, from July 1969 through February 2008, about deceased persons, and correlated their data with intestinal biopsies performed on patients with celiac disease and/or intestinal inflammation.

The results showed a modest increase in the risk of mortality. Although the researchers acknowledged some limitations (for example, not all of the subjects with intestinal inflammation necessarily had celiac disease, and no adjustments were made for health issues such as smoking or obesity), its conclusions are important — but not in the way that has been widely reported.

Here’s what the headlines should have said: “Undiagnosed Celiac Disease Increases Risk of Mortality.”

What the study demonstrates is a real risk for people who have celiac disease but who have either not been diagnosed with the disorder, or who have been diagnosed but who opt not to follow a gluten-free diet. It is, if anything, an argument for encouraging people to get tested for celiac disease. But I can’t help but wonder if scary headlines will actually make people less likely to get tested. What do you think?