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What the Heck is Gluten-friendly Food?

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

There’s a new trend in talking about gluten in foods: calling something “gluten friendly.” What does that mean? If diabetic-friendly means safe for diabetics, and heart-friendly means safe for cardiac patients, gluten-friendly sounds like something safe for gluten-eaters. But no, restaurants have jumped on this trend, trying to make those of us who must eat gluten-free feel like they understand us. Think again!

Gluten free vs. gluten friendly

Restaurants that aren’t 100% gluten free use “gluten friendly” to indicate that, while a particular dish might not contain gluten in its ingredients, cross-contact could be an issue. It’s often paired with a small note at the bottom of the menu that the food is not safe for celiacs. I think it’s just another CYA statement, so restaurants can say, “we warned you.”

The term gluten friendly is not defined by any regulatory agency, not subject to any agreed standard, and really provides no additional information. It’s pure marketing fluff at best; at worst, it can give a celiac a dangerous sense of security.

How do you order gluten-free food in a gluten-friendly restaurant?

Each of us has to decide for ourselves where our boundaries are. Some celiacs will only eat in 100% gluten-free restaurants ̶ and thank goodness, there are more of these appearing every day. Some will also eat in restaurants certified by a trusted group. In the US, that could mean the GREAT Gluten-Free Training for food service professionals from Beyond Celiac, or the gluten-free food program from the National Celiac Association. In other countries, local celiac associations may have similar programs, like the Eating Out Program of the Italian Celiac Association. These restaurants have no need to call themselves gluten friendly; they are celiac safe.

Other celiacs eat in restaurants without certification, but order carefully, question the staff intently, perhaps send an informational card back to the kitchen, and then decide. And some will make their best guess from the menu, mention their gluten intolerance, but refrain from grilling the staff. Each of chooses our own level of comfort. Personally, I fall somewhere between these two, as you can read here. These are the restaurants where the phrase “gluten friendly” can lead to confusion or risky decisions.

What to do about gluten friendly statements?

All of this still leaves us with the question, “What should we, as a community, do about the increasing use of the gluten-friendly statement? As always, we can speak up. If you’re at a privately-owned restaurant, ask to speak with the manager or owner. Ask them where they heard about the phrase gluten friendly, and explain your concerns.

In a chain restaurant, talking with the staff won’t get you far; decisions are made at the corporate level. Your best move is to send your comments in writing to management. The Gluten-Free Watchdog, one of our community’s most active advocates, has created a letter for restaurant management about misleading uses of the term “gluten free” in restaurants that you can download here. The letter is easily modified to explain your concerns with the phrase “gluten friendly.”

What the US FDA says

The US FDA does not recognize the gluten friendly as labeling terminology As they wrote of their labeling requirements “[A] regulatory definition of the food labeling term “gluten-free” and uniform conditions for its use in the labeling of foods is necessary to ensure that individuals with celiac disease are not misled and are provided with truthful and accurate information with respect to foods so labeled.” Gluten friendly is a meaningless phrase and does nothing to help a celiac make a safe decision.

Vote with your feet

I do not believe that we should expect all restaurants to change their entire business model and food offering just for us. I do know that we can hold them to account when they use misleading language. If you see a restaurant calling their food gluten friendly, speak to the owners, write to management, and vote with your feet.

If you don’t feel safe somewhere, don’t come back. Don’t bother snarking on social media – it won’t change anything. Just look after yourself and find a place where you can eat safely. Then enjoy!


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