Cross Contamination

Bread crumbs in the butter, pasta starch in the strainer, crouton crumbs in the salad—these are just a few of the ways gluten-free foods may become contaminated with gluten-full foods. When you are trying so hard to make sure that the food you eat is free of gluten, you don't want to sabotage yourself by being lax with contamination. Use the information in this section to help decrease your chances of eating contaminated food.

Cross-contamination or cross-contact is the accidental "contamination" of a gluten-free food with a gluten-containing food. Cross-contamination can occur anywhere food is grown, harvested, manufactured, processed, or prepared, including at home and in restaurants.

Cross-Contamination at Home

Unless all food brought into your home is gluten free, there is the potential for cross-contamination. This does not mean that all food prepared in your home has to be gluten free or that certain pieces of silverware or place settings need to be designated gluten free. However, there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of cross-contamination in your home:

  • Store gluten-free grain foods in a separate cupboard or on separate shelves above gluten-containing grain foods. This is especially important with flours, which have a mysterious way of leaking out of bags, as well as foods such as breads and crackers, which tend to make crumbs.
  • When baking both gluten-free and gluten-containing breads, cakes, cookies, or other foods, always prepare and bake the gluten-free item first. It is almost impossible not to spill at least some flour along the way, and it is far better to get gluten-free flour in the gluten-containing flour than the other way around.
  • When preparing and serving both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods, use separate utensils (for example, pasta tongs, bread knives, and serving spoons).
  • When preparing both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods, use separate preparation tools, such as cutting boards and pasta strainers. Alternatively, prepare the gluten-free product first.
  • Clean your toaster oven, bread machine, and other appliances used for both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods after each use with gluten-containing products.
  • Use squeeze bottles for ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and other condiments that are used with both gluten-free and gluten-containing products. Alternatively, make sure there is no "double dipping"—sticking a utensil back into a condiment jar after it has been used to spread the condiment on gluten-containing bread.
  • Institute a no-double-dipping rule for other spreadables, such as butter, margarine, and cream cheese.
  • When serving food buffet-style at your home, place the gluten-free foods together and slightly apart from the gluten-containing foods. This way, serving utensils from the gluten-free foods are less likely to get mixed up with the gluten-containing foods.
  • When hosting a dinner party at your home, it is often easiest to make the menu entirely gluten free. That way, you know that the butter, cheese, and other items will remain free of gluten-containing bread or cracker crumbs and that mixed-up serving utensils will not cause a problem.

Cross-Contamination in Restaurants

It is easy to understand how cross-contamination could occur in a restaurant, as gluten-free and gluten-containing foods undoubtedly are prepared in the same kitchen. However, this should not prevent you from eating out. A few precautions will help reduce the risk of cross-contamination in restaurants:

  • When ordering a salad, make sure to stress to the server that croutons should not be included.
  • Avoid salad bars unless they are very basic and all the ingredients are gluten free. The serving utensils may have been "shared" among the various food items.
  • When ordering french fries, check with your server to make sure breaded foods are not deep-fried in the same oil as the fries. If so, don't order the french fries. Also, make sure that the french fries are not "coated" to help them brown—these coatings usually contain flour.
  • When ordering a grilled item, ask that a portion of the grill be cleaned for your item or that a separate pan be used.
  • When ordering a frozen dessert, such as sorbet or ice cream, stress to the server that cookies should not be included.

In My Opinion

While it is important to strive to consume as little gluten as possible (and ideally no gluten at all), from a practical standpoint, this is likely not feasible. If you eat any processed food or food prepared in anything but a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, you are likely to consume some gluten. However, as long as you take precautions to limit cross-contamination and make sure the foods you eat are not made with any gluten-containing ingredients, I would advise sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying your meal.

Cross-Contamination of Processed Foods

The potential for contamination exists for all processed gluten-free foods, including those specially formulated to be gluten free and those that just happen to not contain any gluten.

The processed gluten-free foods that you purchase may be manufactured in one of several types of facilities, including those that manufacture only gluten-free foods or that have a separate area or room within their facility for gluten-free products, as well as those that have separate production lines for gluten-free foods. Processed gluten-free foods also may share production lines with gluten-containing foods. However, this doesn't necessarily mean these products will be contaminated. Many manufacturers have an allergen control plan in place, and all manufacturers should follow current good manufacturing practices. These practices may include thorough cleaning of shared equipment as well as timed product turnovers. If you have questions about a company's manufacturing practices, contact the company (a company address, phone number, and/or website is generally included on the food label), and ask to speak with a quality assurance representative.

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