Calgary restaurants look to accomodate those with celiac disease

A decade ago, restaurants didn’t give a second thought to gluten in their food but the prevalence of celiac disease has forced the food industry to respond.

“Celiac disease is now recognized as one of the most common chronic diseases in the world,” according to Health Canada. It is estimated that it affects one in every 100 to 200 people in North America, many of who may remain undiagnosed.

The immune system of someone with celiac disease responds abnormally to gluten, which inflames and damages the lining of the sufferers’ small intestine. This inhibits proper absorption of nutrients, potentially leading to osteoporosis, anemia, arthritis or infertility.

For Victoria Nielsen, perpetual stomach pains prompted her to get tested.

“I went to the doctor and they just kept telling me that it was a bug that I needed to let pass,” Nielsen says. But her mother persuaded her to get tested for the condition and the results proved positive.

Nielsen has since revamped her diet. Why? The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free regimen for life.

What is gluten?

Gluten is the sticky protein found in barley, rye and wheat that gives dough its elasticity, and helps it to rise, giving the final product its chewy texture. It also appears as a thickener in soups and sauces, processed meats and imitation seafood. Adjusting to a gluten-free diet requires learning what ingredients to look out for.

“Gluten-free is sneaky in what it is. So it’s a bit of a learning curve to figure out what I can and can’t eat,” says Nielsen. “If I feel iffy in the slightest, I just won’t eat it.”

Registered dietitian Rory Hornstein says, “there’s a lot of additives and preservatives in a bunch of foods right now and unless you are familiar with the ingredients, you’d never know they contain gluten.” Hornstein suggests reading the labels on food packaging prior to consumption to ensure sources of gluten are absent.

Trending gluten-free

As demand for gluten-free products has increased, restaurants have responded accordingly.

“Five years ago, even three years ago it wasn’t even a blip on the radar,” says Dan Wood, the owner of Fergus & Bix Restaurant and Beer Market. “I never heard of gluten allergies or celiac disease. Anybody coming in that didn’t want a bun was on the Atkins diet.”

However, after meeting with the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association, Wood learned the effects gluten has on celiac sufferers. Wood and his business partner chose to respond to this dietary concern by providing gluten-free options on their menu.

Red Water Grille’s executive chef Eric Mah also recalls when he “couldn’t remember a single celiac (disease sufferer). And now, all of sudden we get 20 a day. Our largest allergy demographic is celiacs.”

Red Water, as a company, consulted with a nutritionist to plan their menu, which is entirely gluten-free except for their crab cakes.

“Everything else we can modify and accommodate,” Mah says. “All of our sauces are gluten-free and we source out bread that is gluten-free.”

The potential for cross contamination is taken seriously in the Red Water kitchen. “You’ve got to remember to change your cutting board, change your knife. Change your tongs, change the pan you’re using. Everything stops and changes,” says Mah when someone with a celiac disease comes through their doors.

Going gluten-free?

Despite increasing access to celiac-friendly options, jumping on the gluten-free diet bandwagon is not recommended by Hornstein, who specializes in nutrition.

Eric Mah, executive chef for Red Water Grille says that his restaurant’s largest allergy demographic is celiacs. As a result, Red Water consulted with a nutritionist to create a near gluten-free menu.

Photo: Christine RamosHornstein also works in a weight management clinic and has found that, “a lot of the clients who come in who’ve tried many of the fad diets in the past are going gluten-free, because they figure it’s a really good method of weight management and weight loss – and it’s not.”

“Fibre is restricted automatically and if you don’t know how to get adequate fibre in your diet, just cutting out the gluten alone is a fairly big restriction and a big challenge,” Hornstein warns.

If you suspect that you are gluten-intolerant or suffer from celiac disease don’t cut it out of your diet immediately says Hornstein. In order for the tests to prove positive, patients must be consuming gluten to obtain a proper diagnosis.

For those that have been diagnosed, worry not. Restaurants are responding to your needs and the gluten-free market is only growing.

On August 4, 2012, Health Canada’s new food allergen labeling regulations come into force – requiring prepackaged foods containing any potential gluten sources to say so explicitly.

Where there is demand, supply follows. Until July 11 of this year, Health Canada is seeking input from the Canadian public on the proposed principles that will guide the revision of gluten-free labeling regulations.

For more information, check out Health Canada’s website.