Quinoa crust pizza (above) is truly gluten-free!
It has taken me a while to gather and organize my thoughts, so I’m a bit behind a lot of others on posting about this very hot topic. I wanted to have an opportunity to understand as much as possible about what was going on, get as many facts as I could, and truly decide where I stood before I mouthed off. I hope that those of you that are fired up about this don’t mistake my silence for acceptance, because that’s far from the truth.
On Monday, Domino’s announced they would start selling a “gluten-free” pizza crust. First of all, I want you to understand that I have opted not to consume this pizza, nor do I recommend that anyone with any gluten issues consume it.
The thing is, this pizza is not really gluten-free, because they use the same ovens, the same pizza cutters, the same utensils, and the same toppings that they use for their regular pizzas. But they do share a disclaimer – this pizza is not recommended for those with celiac disease. (Domino’s says the pizza is safe for people with a mild gluten sensitivity. To me, that seems as though it is only marketed to those who are on a gluten-free diet because it is a trend.) Domino’s certainly isn’t the first restaurant to offer a gluten-free product that was still contaminated with gluten (remember when California Pizza Kitchen attempted a gluten-free pizza?). They’re trying to capitalize on a hot trend. It’s a business. I get that.
But then, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness posted a statement about their collaboration with Domino’s. They applauded Domino’s efforts to meet the needs of the gluten-free community, but cautioned that the pizza is not safe for those with celiac disease. However, they gave Domino’s their new GREAT Kitchens – Amber Designation.
And that is where I protest.
The idea behind the NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens program is great. The NFCA understands that while many restaurants are jumping on the gluten-free train and are offering or preparing to offer gluten-free items on their menus, most don’t fully understand what it means to serve a gluten-free meal. Alice Bast, the CEO and founder of the NFCA, explains in this press release that most restaurants couldn’t tell you what gluten is, much less how to protect a gluten-free customer from cross-contamination. Most restaurant employees weren’t trained on how to provide a gluten-free meal, and gluten-free customers were left in the dark. Many have visited these establishments, and then wondered why they got sick afterward. Many have stopped eating out as a result. Others, those who are new to the diet or don’t exhibit classic symptoms, thought they were safe, but damage could have been done silently, undermining their health.
The GREAT Kitchens program is supposed work to solve this issue by educating restaurants and certify that they have certain measures in place that ensure a gluten-free meal. There are two “designations” that a restaurant can achieve – the Green designation and the Amber designation. The Green designation is excellent. From the NFCA’s website, restaurants with the Green designation must “have comprehensive training of wait staff, managers and kitchen staff, have verified the gluten-free status of incoming ingredients and have instituted strict cross-contamination controls.” Awesome. Yes. We want this. But the Amber designation? It only requires “ingredient verification and basic training of wait staff and managers.” (Note: that doesn’t include those people in the back actually preparing your meal.) Essentially, a restaurant can still provide a potentially heavily cross-contaminated meal on a regular basis, have a disclaimer, and earn this designation.
In my mind, a “designation” is something prestigious. Something you have to work for. It’s a “stamp of approval” – something that others can rely upon to make decisions. Many people that follow a gluten-free diet instill trust in an organization such as the NFCA. They rely upon them for guidance and information related to their diet. They want an organization such as NFCA to advocate for celiac awareness and the need for things like standardized gluten-free labeling and the disclosure of gluten in medications. So when an organization like this puts their “stamp of approval” on a restaurant, they are supporting that restaurant. They are essentially telling those on a gluten-free diet that this restaurant is “safe”.
Only in the case of an Amber designation, the restaurant isn’t safe. The NFCA gave Domino’s the Amber designation, and then clearly stated that Domino’s isn’t safe for us.
I believe this is a mistake.
Either a restaurant is safe (Green) or it’s not. While almost no restaurants can guarantee 100% safety when there are gluten-containing foods present, many can provide a safe meal with some education and special processes in place. (For instance, Chuckie Cheese is debuting a safe pizza – currently in a test city. Boomerjack’s, a restaurant in my area, uses a separate line and separate trained cooks to prepare gluten-free menu items, and even has a different pattern on the paper so there is no confusion. It can be done.) There is no in-between. It’s like being pregnant – you’re either pregnant or you’re not. You’re not “a little bit pregnant”. Same with gluten-free. A “little bit” of gluten is not okay. Not for anyone that needs a gluten-free diet for medical reasons – regardless of whether they have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance. There should be no “Amber” designation. A restaurant is either “Green” or it’s not. (A “Red” designation, maybe?!)
The fact that the NFCA collaborated with Domino’s and informed them that they could not market this pizza crust to those with celiac disease was good. The fact that they are endorsing Domino’s and commending them on their efforts is not. I’m not happy with the fact that Domino’s is offering this crust and calling it gluten-free, and I’m not happy with the way the NFCA is handling this situation.
Last night, during an interview with Alice Bast, conducted by Jules Shepard of Jules Gluten-Free (listen to the whole thing here - it’s very informative), Alice Bast stated that she wished that they didn’t have to offer an Amber designation; that every restaurant would “Go Green.” Then Alice, why offer such a designation? Instead, why not just have a “Go Green” campaign? Why give recognition when there is no “job well done?” Just like how putting disclaimers all over something doesn’t eradicate the problem, rewarding restaurants when it isn’t earned doesn’t solve anything.
Truth is, the Amber designation and the disclaimers slapped all over these “gluten-free” crusts only serve to confuse the gluten-free community, and for a lot of reasons. For one, you can’t call something gluten-free when it isn’t gluten-free. This is why the gluten-free community has been pushing the FDA for standardization in gluten-free labeling. You do notice that they call this the “gluten-free crust” – not the “gluten-free pizza”, right? Unfortunately, the average consumer won’t notice.
The NFCA realizes that there is a gross lack of awareness about celiac disease and the damages of gluten – that’s why they were formed. However, even with those people that have been told that they must follow a gluten-free diet, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about the severity of their disease and the strictness in which they must follow their diet in order to be healthy. Someone new to the diet will see “gluten-free”, and even though their are disclaimers, they assume the product is safe for them. Whenever I think of a situation like this, the average teenager or college-age kid with celiac disease or gluten intolerance comes to mind. They’re at school, with friends or peers, and their friends will want to order pizza. Upon seeing that Domino’s offers a “gluten-free” pizza crust, they either a) don’t read or understand this disclaimer, eat it, and get sick, or b) have to explain to their friends, who are telling them “but it’s gluten-free!” that they cannot eat that gluten-free pizza. Either way, they lose. Bottom line: It’s misleading and dangerous to use the term “gluten-free” when it doesn’t really mean gluten-free.
It’s even more misleading that the NFCA has endorsed Domino’s efforts, perpetuates this lack of awareness, and has given them this Amber designation. But I feel I’ve made my point on that topic already.
Another point of confusion – the disclaimers given by both Domino’s and the NFCA in regards to this pizza crust is that they do not recommend it for people with celiac disease. Trouble is, there are a lot of people out there (myself included) that haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease, but still must follow a gluten-free diet. Perhaps they have non-celiac gluten intolerance. Or dermatitis herpetiformis. Or autism, or Hashimoto’s, or any number of other auto-immune disorders that have been helped by a gluten-free diet. Even though these people don’t have celiac disease, even a little bit of gluten is not okay. A little bit of gluten can cause misery in a lot of people’s lives, not just the lives of those with celiac disease. (Dr. Alessio Fasano of the Center for Celiac Research issued a statement that speaks to this.) The NFCA is aware and acknowledges the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but their disclaimers, as well as Domino’s, both specifically address celiac disease, leaving out a huge portion of the gluten-free population.
Ultimately, I feel that the NFCA has let down the core group they say that they support by this move. The NFCA has a mission to support those that must be on a lifelong gluten-free diet. If the NFCA wishes to support restaurants because of gluten-free efforts, they need to do so in a way that can best represent the best of restaurants – those that truly understand what it means to keep food safe for those on a gluten-free diet.
While I’m not totally writing off the NFCA at this point, I’ll just say that my faith has been shaken. There has been a huge public outcry against this move already, and it is my opinion that how the NFCA handles it in the near future will mean the difference between being just a figure head for celiac disease awareness and a real, honest organization with the health and wellness of those who must live a gluten-free lifestyle in mind. I sincerely hope they choose the latter.