New gluten free food program offers new lease on dining

Published On May 23, 2018 | By Matthew Frank | Features, Health, News

The gluten-free diet is becoming more common for people being diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. (REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)

Matthew Frank

A new program endorsed by the Canadian Celiac Association is trying to make it easier for people struggling with celiac disease by educating restaurant staff about what gluten is, how to substitute ingredients and the best ways to avoid cross-contamination.

The Gluten Free Food Program may provide some relief for twenty-one year old Spencer Griffioen who felt a reoccurring stabbing pain in his stomach last year.

It was a reoccurring problem that he could not easily identify. Stressed and feeling sick, Griffioen found himself at “the hospital a few times, having no idea what was wrong with [him].” He says it was something he “could not imagine” and “become present at such an age.”

Griffioen was diagnosed with a disease experts still don’t know a lot about yet, also known as celiac disease. And he’s not the only one.

Many Canadians are struggling with celiac disease, a disease that makes eating wheat protein an everyday problem.

It may sound simple enough to trim the crust, but the trouble is that gluten can be found in almost anything. And for someone with celiac, sometimes a label isn’t enough to ensure a food is safe.

“I’d say it’s pretty hard to find gluten free products,” Griffoien said. “I don’t know if some people know how hard it is to stick to the diet.”

The food program, which started last year, is now offering certification for food service businesses to offer gluten free alternatives.

Offered across Canada

It is being offered around the country at some Canadian post secondary institutions and businesses.

MyFries is a restaurant in Alberta recently certified as gluten free. The owners Maarten and Amy Verstoep say the whole process took about two months and that they’re dedicated 100 per cent to a gluten free approach.

Before their audit was given, they had to create a detailed ingredient list and get rid of anything containing gluten.

“The only thing that we had in the store that [contained] gluten was malt vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, but we eliminated that from the menus.  Everything is made from scratch,” Maarten said.

Melissa Secord, Executive Director of Canadian Celiac Association, said gluten can be found even in places you wouldn’t expect.

“Some restaurants don’t understand what products have gluten in them, and what [products] don’t,” Secord said.

“Some will say that they have gluten free options, and put pasta in the same strainer as pasta that has gluten in it,” she said. “The biggest problem with it is cross contamination.”

Secord said that an important part of the program is training employees for both kitchens and front-line staff.

“Once the waiter walks away from the table, you don’t know what’s happening [with] the communication between the waiter and the cook staff, and the cook staff back to the waiter. Communication is important,” she said.

Found in wheat, barley, rye

Gluten is a group of proteins found in barley, rye, and wheat. It damages the lining of the small intestine in people with celiac disease and can lead, or be accompanied by other symptoms like anemia, osteoporosis, and an increased risk of some cancers.

The Verstoeps wanted to help customers stay gluten-free because they understand how hard a strict diet can be.

“I think of all the people we’ve talked to, the biggest question is: Does the staff know what celiac and gluten is?” Maarten Verstoep said.

“We know how hard it is. Some people I see have such severe celiac that specks of gluten in the air can make them sick.  If staff can know how to deal with it properly, anyone can have gluten free items.”

Maarten Verstoep said when people discover they can eat anything off the menu, they sometimes become emotional.

“A lady cried at the counter yesterday because she couldn’t believe she could eat anything off the menu,” he said.

“People can also come in with friends and family, and order off the menu and never have to be insecure about eating and ask if it is safe or unsafe.  That to me is the most rewarding thing”

“We became dedicated to it, and wanted to eliminate [gluten] from the menu. We wanted to be committed to the celiac community, and keep it simple and make it work.”

Keeping people aware

Secord emphasizes the importance of keeping people aware.

“Food training at the restaurant owners are looking for it too. They talk about safe food handling from preparation to the table and how everybody has their part,” she said. “Education and communication never hurt.”

Griffioien added that celiac awareness could be better taught in schools and outside of school as well.

“I had no idea that it was even a thing before I was diagnosed with it. It can easily be taught in any public health class,” Griffioen said.

He said that people may self diagnose based on the kind of information they can find, but, in fact, that diagnosis should come from a health or educational expert.

“I think I would feel a lot better if I had more information. I think people could look at it more realistically [if they were taught and able to identify] if they were feeling it truly, or if they were feeling it in their own head,” he said.

Griffoien adds that his family and friends are now aware about dietary restrictions relating to gluten intolerance, and more businesses are taking the initiative to know more about it, like McDonald’s where he works.

“When I go to my mum’s she will have gluten free food, or my buddies will suggest gluten free places we can go. There’s a lot of stuff that it’s hard to know if they’re giving you something that’s safe or not,” Griffioen said. 

“McDonald’s offers a menu that let’s people know what’s in the product we’re making. They have paper on the wall so we can explain what does and doesn’t have it, and it provides me with the knowledge so that I know what I’m eating as well.” 

Researchers at the University of Toronto agree that there is a need to make people more aware about how celiac disease affects the population.

Many undiagnosed

According to a 2017 research paper, researchers found that 87 per cent of people living with celiac disease aren’t aware of it.

And, more than 300,000 Canadians could be struggling with an automimmune disorder that attacks the intestinal lining of the stomach upon ingesting gluten, also known as celiac disease, according to a 2014 Health Canada report.

However, many remain undiagnosed.

Even an estimated 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders every year, according to statistics from Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.

Secord notes that celiac disease is growing at the same rate as Type I diabetes, but is not sure of the exact reasons why.

“A lot of things are increasing because of environment, stress. It is growing as well as gluten sensitivity as well. There are people who have a sensitivity,” she said.

“They may not have the immune condition part, but there’s something happening in their body. It may not be the gluten, but it may be that bodies are reacting differently.”

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