For people starting a gluten free diet it can be surprising to learn about the dangers of cross contact. Tiny amounts of gluten can trigger an autoimmune response in those with celiac disease. This makes it essential to learn where gluten hides and how to avoid contaminated food.
→ Cross contact is also sometimes called gluten cross contamination.
What is Cross Contact
Cross contact happens when gluten free food comes in contact with gluten. It’s usually very small amounts of gluten which have incidental contact with the meal. Flour dust, fry oil and even crumbs are some items that can cause cross contamination. Getting a few crumbs on your meal may not sound like a big deal but this small amount of gluten can set off your body’s celiac immune response.
People often contaminate the gluten free meal unintentionally and without even realizing it.
Where Cross Contact Happens
Now that you know what cross contact is, let’s talk about where it’s most likely to happen and how to avoid it.
Don’t avoid gluten in all your meals and then get exposed through cross contact.
There are many common places for gluten cross contamination to happen, but it can happen anywhere.
Locations where cross contact is likely to happen are:
1. In the Home
2. At Restaurants
3. During Food Processing and Manufacturing
It’s important to note that medications are not a problem when it comes to gluten cross contact.
Medications can be a source of HIDDEN gluten because of ingredients and fillers that contain gluten!
They aren’t a concern for cross contamination because pharmaceutical facilities have strict regulations for ventilation, air filtration and cross contamination to keep equipment clean of drug residues. The procedures are much more strict for those than for food manufacturing plants.
Gluten is a protein, you can’t kill it like bacteria.
Cross Contact in the Home
1. In The Home
My favorite area to deal with gluten cross contact is in the home, because I have the most control over this space. My home makes me feel safer than any where else since I have the least amount of risk when I make foods at home.
However, there are quite a few areas that are high risk for cross contamination. It took me getting glutened and a couple of years to nail down the worst trouble spots in my kitchen. Hopefully, the list below will help you avoid my mistakes and get you started on making your home a safe gluten free zone.
Color Code Gluten Free Items
A great way to keep mix ups from happening in the kitchen is to color code your gluten free items. This means get fun colors for pots, pans, cutting boards and other kitchen equipment. The colored items can be a reminder for everyone that those items are only for use with gluten free products.
If you don’t like bright fun colors, you can also choose a color theme like black and red or white. I highly recommend color coding your gluten free spatulas and other kitchenware if you live with non-celiac people.
No matter how well intentioned they are, they will occasionally forget. As time goes on, your celiac disease becomes normal and I have seen my loved ones forget they can’t use my cutting board or wooden spoons, etc.
The bright colored items are a memory jogger and a last minute reminder that it’s not communal property. They make it so I don’t have to nag or constantly watch.
These are high risk if you live with people who bake or eat with gluten. The recommendation is to wipe down your counter with soap and water before you prepare food.
If that’s too much hassle at least use a wet paper towel or antibacterial wipe any obvious contaminants off the counter and then place a physical barrier on the counter top for your entire food preparation area.
The important thing is that you find a convenient and safe system that works for you. Colored sponges are a good options for cleaning your gluten free areas. These Delicate Care Sponges are good to avoid scratching non-stick cookware.
Crumbs from the toaster can trigger a gluten reaction. This is something that restaurants often overlook. Buy any toaster style you want, preferably a different color than the current toaster, and label it gluten free.
I also recommend that you don’t put it right next to the regular toaster. It only takes someone spacing out once and toasting bread in your toaster to contaminate it.
Another option for avoiding cross contact in toasters is the use of reusable toaster bags. This is a good option if you don’t have counter space for a gluten free toaster.
Grills are often contaminated with gluten particles from buns, seasonings, sauces or meats that were previously grilled. When going to a BBQ you can bring gluten free food, a clean spatula and have your items grilled on foil. Be sure to tell the grill master why you need your food cooked separate.
Plastic and wood items are porous and can trap gluten so cleaning with soap and hot water will not make them safe. You should get a separate gluten free cutting board and label it so no one else uses it.
A good way to handle this is to get a unique gluten free cutting board in a fun color you like. This makes it easy to identify the which board is gluten free. Gorilla Grip makes non-porous dishwasher-safe cutting boards with a lot of color options.
These are often overlooked sources of gluten cross contact. Knives double dipping into mayonnaise, peanut butter, jelly, salsa and other jars can leave bread crumbs.
For other jars, many people implement a “no double dipping” rule, which means only clean silverware can be put inside. I’ve found the no double dipping” rule to be risky, especially with children. Another option is to buy separate jars and label them gluten free.
I recommend getting a new hand mixer to use only for gluten free mixing. My worse glutening was caused by cross contact from a mixer. All the equipment was cleaned, but when the mixer turned on the motor blew flour dust out into the food.
Get a fun color to keep with the theme of color coding your gluten free kitchen items.
Your pet’s food can cause cross contact in the home, but this doesn’t mean the dog has to go gluten free too. The biggest change you can do to protect yourself is to always wash your hands after handling the pet food and food bowls.
Also, be aware of where you put your pet’s feeding bowls and food storage containers.
Here are some high risk items that are likely to cause cross contact. Whenever possible, purchase separate color coded ones and use them exclusively for your gluten free baking.
Wooden items are porous and can contain gluten even after being cleaned. Items that you should replace are wooden spoons, rolling pins, cutting boards and other wood utensils.
Plastic, nylon and silicon utensils that have any scratches should also be replaced with dedicated gluten free utensils to avoid cross contact. This includes spatulas, whisks, spoons and other utensils. There are great colors available to make gluten free utensils stand out.
Non-stick cookie sheets, non-stick muffin tins and non-stick bread pans, etc. are all at risk for holding gluten within any scratches. Replace any scratched non-stick pans with new dedicated gluten free ones. I also recommend using parchment paper on the cookie sheets for easy cleaning.
Make sure to store gluten baking items separate from your gluten free stuff.
Pot and Pans
There is some debate about whether pots and pans should be replaced due to the risk of cross contact. Any non-stick pans that have scratches should not be used by someone with celiac disease.
If your pots and pans don’t have any scratches and you clean them well in between each use, it’s entirely possible not to have gluten cross contamination from your cookware.
Some people have very expensive pots and pans so the burden of replacing them isn’t worth it since the risk of contamination is low.
Personally, I bought a set of new inexpensive pots and pans that I only use for dedicated gluten free cooking. It’s hard to find space for them but I don’t want to constantly monitor them for scratches or worry about whether other people have cleaned them well enough each time I cook.
For me, it’s less anxiety, which makes it more convenient to have separate pots and pans, but it’s not for everybody. You have a little flexibility in this area, so choose what works for you.
If you eat pasta you should purchase a new strainer or colander even if your using one of the metal wire mesh ones. Strainers, even metal ones have so many corners and crevices that it’s very hard to completely clean it of tiny gluten particles, even after using soaps and hot water.
Check out these space saving collapsable, colorful strainers and colanders to get ideas for your kitchen.
Once you get a new colander, label it gluten free and keep it separate from the gluten one.
Cast Iron Skillet
Sadly, cast iron skillets are porous and can keep a gluten residue even after being cleaned. For many people replacing your skillet is no big deal. However, if your skillet is a family heirloom or has been a loyal friend for years, you probably don’t want to lose it to celiac disease.
Here is some good news. You can remove the risk of cross contact by putting your old cast iron skillet in the oven and setting the oven to self clean. When it’s done, give it a good scrub and then reseason your now gluten free skillet.
My Items Were Contaminated
When, not if, someone does accidentally use your GF items and contaminate them, I highly recommend you thank them for telling you. If you get upset, they are more likely to not tell you next time!
The important thing is that you find out if your items have come in contact with gluten. Don’t get mad, yell and throw the item in the trash. Even though you might feel like doing just that.
Use your judgement about whether it can be cleaned or needs to be replaced. What did they make with it? Does it have scratches where the gluten can be stuck.
Over time I went through at least 4 plastic spatulas and two cookie sheets when I had roommates. They did their best, but between them and their guests, people kept grabbing my stuff. The important thing is that they always confessed and apologized. I would thank them for letting me know and not make me them feel bad. All my items had scratches, so I couldn’t clean them well. Ultimately, I just gave the items to the roommates, they obviously had a shortage, and eventually the problem stopped.
Cross Contact While Dining Out
2. At Restaurants
Most food places, even the ones with gluten free items on the menu, are mine fields for celiacs. It’s hard to relax and enjoy a meal when your busy interrogating and teaching the chef, waiters and servers until they all convince you that there will be no gluten anywhere near your meal. Then when your food arrives, you see all the opportunities for mistakes and wonder “did they forget to do anything?” and “will this food make me sick?”
The truth is that unless you’re eating at a dedicated gluten free facility, there will be a risk of getting exposed to gluten. No one wants to admit it or talk about it, but it’s a gamble and we all know it. Below are some reasons eating out can lead to gluten cross contact. Hopefully, they can help avoid accidents.
This is a good time to mention how amazing dedicated gluten free eateries are for celiacs. They are a safe haven where you can experience sitting down and ordering anything off the menu, without asking any questions. Woo hoo!
Fried food is often put in baskets and dipped into frying oil. This puts breading and gluten proteins from different foods into the frying oil. So if you order french fries there will be cross contact with gluten when they are cooked in the oil. Fried items need to be cooked in dedicated gluten free fryers in order to be considered safe for people with celiac disease.
Some places will fry the gluten free foods first in the morning before using the oil for regular items to keep them safe.
Flour dust and airborne flour can be a problem in pizza places, bakeries, etc. If a gluten free pizza crust is rolled in the same area they roll the regular pizza crusts, there is cross contact with flour dust.
Bakeries have the same problem because rolling pins, cutting boards and utensils all need to be kept separate as dedicated gluten free items if they are wood or made of another porous material.
According to the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) standard flour dust can hang in the air for up to 24 hours which makes these locations hot zones for gluten.
Also, beware of gluten free “flourless” chocolate cakes which may be made in a pan dusted with flour by the chef.
When it comes to restaurants, don’t assume that items are gluten free because logically they should be!
For example, an item like scrambled eggs on the menu might seem like a safe gluten free food in any restaurant. However, some places use pancake batter (not gluten free) to thicken their eggs. The waitstaff may not be aware of these hidden gluten ingredients so you can’t always count on them to inform you.
Also, the eggs can be mixed in, stirred with, seasoned with, or cooked in something that causes cross contact with gluten.
These are a couple reasons restaurants are risky for gluten cross contamination.
Unfortunately, there is always a risk for cross contact when other people prepare your food and restaurants are no different. A big reason for that is the employees. Some places will have great employees who are engaged, informed and willing to listen to your concerns. Some places will have dismissive, indifferent, ignorant, or even dishonest employees.
Part of eating out as a celiac requires determining if you trust the person your talking to. Many people have gotten sick because they listened to an employee instead of trusting their own instincs. What’s important to remember is that you are responsible for your disease.
Believe in yourself and trust your instincts!
If someone tells you that wheat pasta is safe to eat and gluten free… you don’t eat it! Keep in mind that a waiter might be trying to help you, but he is not as motivated as you are to learn about celiac disease.
I worked at a juice bar for awhile and I can tell you that I was not motivated to learn about the details of the gluten free products while making minimum wage. I never lied to anyone, but I told them what my boss told me to tell them… and looking back I have no idea if he was telling the truth or just trying to make sales.
Other Risks for Cross Contact
3. During Food Processing and Manufacturing
Learning about gluten cross contact can feel overwhelming at times. There are ways to accommodate for cross contamination that happens during processing and manufacturing.
For example, finding gluten free brands that you trust and the celiac community trusts is a great way to avoid many of the equipments contamination issues. Another way is to buy certified gluten free items, like oats, to avoid the potential for contaminated oats.
Even if you don’t have celiac disease, the celiac community is a great resource to gauge whether a brand is truly gluten free.
In the Fields
Crops that share fields with wheat, barley or rye crops can become contaminated with gluten in the fields. The gluten free crops can also have cross contact with gluten grains in their storage facilities.
These are two of the factors which contribute to oats not being considered gluten free unless handled correctly.
Made in a Facility
Another possible source of cross contact is food processed in a facility that processes food with gluten. Gluten free food made on equipment that processes gluten containing foods is another common source of cross contamination. This can be avoided with stringent cleaning procedures, but the cleaning has to be done properly.
After the product is in grocery stores they may be placed in bulk bins. These are the plastic bins filled with nuts, granolas, baking items, dried fruits, etc.
The main cause of cross contact is the scooper which can be used in multiple bins by customers. Improper cleaning and flour dust are other reasons these items become contaminated.
The deli counter is definitely a risky place to get glutened because there is such a wide variety of dishes now. Some of them have gluten containing breading or seasonings and the deli meats are often prepared on the same surfaces and cut using the same machine or utensils.
One way to get a gluten free experience is to ask them to change their gloves, use a clean surface and talk to them about coming when they clean the meat slicer so your meats can be sliced before it gets contaminated.
If your local butcher or deli can’t accomodate you, there are some really good safe gluten free meat brands out there.
Two of my favorite are Boar’s Head and Jones Dairy Farm. Both brands label their products gluten free so their is no guessing or stressing out about the ingredients while you are shopping.
The Jones Dairy Farm are sold safely prepackaged and certified gluten free. Also, I see Jones Dairy Farm every year at their booth in the Celiac Disease Expo and they specifically talk about celiac disease on their website.
All of the Boar’s Head products are gluten free. This includes cheeses and condiments. Just make sure the Boar’s Head meats aren’t sliced at your stores deli counter and then put in packaging if you want to avoid cross contact.
Since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, my family orders the Boar’s Head ham every Christmas and then we slice it ourselves at home. It’s a great way for my gluten eating family to enjoy great ham, while being able to share a meal with me.
Nima Sensor Gluten Testing
The Nima Sensor is a portable device that can be used to test if there is gluten in food. This can be a great option when you are eating other people’s homemade food or are out at a restaurant.
It’s not meant to test everything you eat, but rather to be an extra precaution if you are unsure about a specific food.
It would be great to be able to test everything, but the testing capsules cost a few bucks each. That would get pricey.
The Nima itself is pretty expensive, however it can be a real lifesaver if you can afford it. There are times I would pay anything to avoid getting sick from gluten. To learn more, check out the Nima Starter Kit and read the reviews on Amazon.
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