Study Finds Restaurants Allegedly Contaminate Gluten-Free Dishes With Gluten

Daniela Kelly April 25, 2019
 Study Finds Restaurants Allegedly Contaminate Gluten-Free Dishes With Gluten

People with celiac disease know that minute traces of gluten in their foods can harm them, and going out to eat isn’t always easy.

A recent American Journal of Gastroenterology report found that over half of gluten-free pizza and pasta in restaurants were positive for gluten. A third of these foods that were alleged to be gluten-free actually had some gluten in them.

Clinical research director at Columbia University Medical Center and New York Presbyterian Hospital Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl said it was suspected that foods labeled gluten-free were actually contaminated with gluten. He said it’s not known how prevalent the situation is, but according to the study, pizza, pasta and other foods served in the dinnertime hour are affected.

Lebwohl said gluten-intolerant patients often suspect a consumption of gluten when they go out to eat, even when foods are labeled as being gluten-free.

Lebwohl was able to secure data from the manufacturer of the Nima Gluten Sensor, a portable device that people could use to test the foods they believed had been contaminated with gluten. The company provided him with more than 5,600 food tests submitted by 804 users in an 18-month timeframe. Researchers reviewed the data and found 32 percent of the tests uncovered gluten-free dishes were actually contaminated with gluten.

In more than half the tests, gluten-free pasta tested positive, and 53 percent of gluten-free pizza actually had gluten in it. 34 percent of dinners, 29 percent of lunches and 27 percent of breakfast with gluten-free dishes had gluten in them.

Lebwohl said there were some limits to the data such as people testing what they wanted to and choosing to upload those results to the manufacturer. He made it clear that the findings did not mean that 32 percent of the foods were dangerous to eat for gluten-free intolerant individuals.

He also said Nima is an extremely sensitive tool.

According to U.S. guidelines, a food can be concerned gluten-free if it has less than 20 parts per million, but Nima detects very low levels (five to 10ppm) – readings that people find inconsequential. Lebwohl said a food can have less than 20 ppm, be tested with the device and still read as if it has gluten in it.

The device sells for around $229, used in conjunction with $6 test strip capsules. If the device finds gluten in the food, a wheat symbol will appear. When it doesn’t detect gluten, a smile face will appear.

According to Lebwohl, restaurants tend to accidentally contaminate their foods with gluten – being made in the same equipment can lead to cross-contamination. Gluten-free pasta being made in the same water that gluten-laden pasta was just made in.

Lebwohl said the best way to avoid this issue is to educate the restaurant industry. He said since one percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease, a minute trace of gluten can cause them intestinal damage.