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COLUMN: Restaurants should increase awareness of celiac and the gluten-free diet


Pictured is a gluten-free chicken noodle salad. Tribune News Service

During the second semester of my freshman year, my best friend was diagnosed with celiac disease. 

Celiac disease is “a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestin,” according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. The website also estimates the disease affects one in 100 people worldwide. 

Celiac patients react negatively to gluten. Whenever they eat food that contains gluten, their bodies mount an immune response attack on the small intestine, which leads to damages to the villi. Villi are small finger-like outgrowths lining the small intestine, and if damaged, would prevent the body from absorbing nutrients.

Thanks to technological advancements and efforts from celiac awareness groups, more people and food establishments are beginning to realize the threat the disease poses to patients. As a result, more gluten-free options are appearing in stores and on restaurant menus. While all these are giant steps forward, there are a lot more that food brands and restaurants can do in order to help celiac patients enjoy their dining experiences. 

When it comes to shopping for gluten-free foods, increased public awareness has certainly helped stores expand their gluten-free aisles. However, one may not realize that there is often an abundance of highly-processed products that contain large amounts of sugar. 

Additionally, gluten-free foods are considered specialty products, so very few of them have the vitamins that are easily found in regular everyday foods. 

Many gluten-free breads are also filled with things such as tapioca and cornstarch to make the texture lighter. While these ingredients may be high in carbohydrates, they are low in protein and minerals. Therefore, when people make the decision to switch to a gluten-free diet, they are taking in a lot less vitamins, fiber and minerals. 

A big part of the college experience is going out to various restaurants that make up the vibrant Bloomington food scene. After my best friend was diagnosed with celiac disease, however, our choices of restaurants became limited. Many places have no gluten-free options on their menus, and the ones that do largely depend on the competency of the server and the restaurant kitchen to accurately record customer requests and to make appropriate accommodations. 

Looking back on all the times that we’ve dined out, I remember encountering servers who were extremely knowledgeable about celiac and gluten-free options, and who went out of their way to work with the kitchen to make sure my friend’s dietary needs were met. I also recall instances in which the server had little knowledge of the gluten-free menu choices or substitutions to certain ingredients and times when the kitchen messed up orders and put gluten products in the gluten-free dishes. 

While I understand that gluten-free ingredients may be more expensive to purchase, and developing gluten-free menu options and training the staff requires more time and money, restaurants should have at least basic knowledge of celiac. Most importantly, they should understand that instead of its common misconception as an allergy, celiac is actually a disease. 

People place their health in the restaurant's hands every time they dine out. As gluten intolerance and celiac diagnoses becomes more common, restaurants should do themselves a favor and realize that accommodating the dietary needs of customers is important. 

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