Is it really Gluten Free?

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St Kilda eateries are very busy in December, and accidents happen during busy times.

As a local chef, it concerns me that not all members of the food industry are able to identify gluten-free ingredients.

I recently ate at a renowned beachside café with a friend, Julie, who has suffered from coeliac disease for many years and can experience symptoms similar to food poisoning.

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Despite her vigilance, she claims to have been poisoned by gluten on more than one occasion and now fears eating out.

With trepidation, she ordered a rare treat: battered fish and chips.

We asked the waitress to check with the chef that the batter was gluten-free, and she confirmed that, “It was gluten free and that it was not a problem”. Understanding the pressure of a busy service, I added, “Please make sure that it is gluten free because Julie gets violently ill if she has gluten!” Again, we were reassured.

Later that night, Julie was violently ill for most of the night.

She describes the symptoms in this way: “I start getting really sharp pains in my right side, in my small intestine, then the pain increases in intensity for the next few hours, until I vomit”, she said.

The following day, when Julie complained to the owner, he was apologetic. He said: “We have never served gluten-free battered fish, only grilled.” Julie was furious! He went on to say that he was very sorry, and that he needed to have a chat with the staff and re-educate them about gluten.

Julie replied, “I work with children and we have to be 100 % on top of allergies. Kids with nut allergies can go into anaphylactic shock and die! Why is this situation any different? What if I was a child? I could have ended up in hospital, or worse!”

Not wishing to report the incident to the local health department, she exclaimed. “I won’t be going back because I can’t trust them anymore”.

Coeliac disease is one of the most under-diagnosed, chronic diseases. If left undiagnosed, it may lead to bowel cancer or osteoporosis.

About 1% of Australians suffer from coeliac disease. It is estimated that, of those, about three quarters don’t even know they have it.

It’s an auto-immune disease; the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissues. The attack is triggered by ingesting gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.

Many everyday foods contain Gluten. Not all brands are safe for sufferers of this disease. If you’re unsure, contact the Australian Coeliac Society,, or ask your doctor.

Common items like ham, bacon, soy sauce, white pepper, icing sugar mixture, baking powder, chocolates or ice cream may contain hidden gluten in the form of wheat bi-products, or fillers, that might be used in their production.

Even the consumption of alcohol must be scrutinised because some grains, such as barley and rye, are used in the distilling process.

Spelt flour bread may be advertised as ‘gluten free’. This is wrong. It may be low in gluten, but it is still made from wheat. Some Coeliac disease sufferers can tolerate spelt, others can’t.

Although the onus is always on the patron to be aware of personal allergies, it is also the responsibility of chefs and wait staff to understand and be sympathetic about allergies that their customers may suffer from. Some cafes and restaurants remain oblivious, so beware!

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