The (Not-So) Gluten-Free Pizza Crust Dilemma

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.

 

Comments

  1. says

    AMEN!!! And don’t worry. I’ve been silent, too, other than some raving on Facebook and Twitter. I’m still forming my thoughts before I fire off on my blog. ;)

  2. says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. As the time passes since we have made our family gluten-free, I am consistently amazed at how little the food industry really knows about gluten… like what the heck it is. In restaurants the befuddled faces of servers, bartenders and even the managers. Sometimes even anger for inconveniencing them with the questions. If a restaurant, national chain or not, is going to do it, they need to do it right. I worked in pizza places when I was younger and there is NO way that you could isolate contamination issues the way that most of them are currently operating. An Amber “designation” is just telling them, “yes, that is good enough,” and its not.
    I was talking today with someone about it and I think its like throwing out the life preserver to a drowning person but hitting them in the head with it instead and they drown anyway. I can see intention there, but unless the result works, the intention is nothing.

  3. says

    This certainly has been quite the hot topic this week in the gluten world…and deservedly so.

    I, too, don’t get the whole “Amber” designation. There is no middle ground for celiacs or those with gluten intolerance.

    Great post…

  4. Sharon says

    Very well written. And I agree that you or I may know better then to eat this but there are PLENTY of people who will see “gluten free” and assume it’s safe. They are the ones who this is really harming. That is also the problems with the NCFA rating system. Some people will see that it has a seal of approval (despite which level the seal is) and assume it’s a safe restaurant to eat in. Really working against the cause in the long run when you think about it. It’s a shame really….

  5. says

    Hmm, it sounds to me like they might be more interested in having more restaurants in this program they’ve created than focusing just on the right restaurants.

    And wow Alta, when you get fired up, you really get into your posts!!

  6. says

    Beautifully said, Alta! I couldn’t agree more! It’s taken me a while to hash out my feeling on this one, too. I think I’ve had the whole William Faulkner “stream of consciousness” thing going on all week. I’m certain I’m dreaming about this topic, too. Yes, my faith is indeed shaken, and like you I’m hoping for the latter outcome as well. I, too, will write on this subject soon because your point is very well taken on the lack of education on this particular situation and when “gluten free” is really safe. I’ve been pretty disturbed by some comments left on my Facebook page this week. There have been folks telling others “don’t tell me what to eat” … “I’m going to eat this pizza.” I’m all for folks exercising their own choices, but please don’t tell me or others that eating the Domino’s pizza with the gluten-free crust that’s cross contaminated out the ying yang is the right choice when one is living gluten free for health reasons–celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So, in closing, bravo on this post, dear! Thank you!

    Shirley

    • altawrites says

      Shirley – Thank you!

      Alisa – Yeah, this one was a long one for sure! :)

      Sharon – It is a shame. I hope that things change in the future!

      Gluten Dude – Thank you!

      Kathy – Interesting comparison – the life preserver. Like it! While I don’t necessarily expect just any restaurant to fully understand what it means to be gluten-free, I do wish that those that want to promote gluten-free items on their menu have an understanding of how to do it right. In Domino’s case, they could likely isolate contamination issues, but they’d have to use a dedicated oven, dedicated tools, and dedicated toppings. The fact that there isn’t wheat flour flying around (because they don’t make crusts there) does help somewhat. The same can’t be said for some other pizza restaurants, that’s for sure. Thank you!

      Wendy – Thank you!

  7. Donna says

    I wrote to Domino’s – contact them, please. I think with this designation from NFCA they are confused as to who their market really is. They think some of the 18 million gluten sensitive or intolerant people can eat it and saying they can’t do a better job for celiacs is acceptable.

    Thank you for contacting us about our new Gluten Free Crust. We understand your frustration about our gluten free crust not being recommended for those with celiac disease. We recognize that our current operation model cannot – beyond all doubt – provide the environment needed to assure those with celiac disease that the whole pizza is 100% gluten free. Our Gluten Free Crust is certified to be free from gluten and we want you to know that pizzas made with our Gluten Free Crust are made in a “common kitchen” along with other products that are not gluten free. Because of this, we want to be honest and transparent about this product to avoid risking a consumer ordering this product under false pretenses.

    The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) estimates that approximately 18 million Americans have a gluten sensitivity. While we can’t recommend our Gluten Free Crust for everyone, it provides an option to many impacted by gluten sensitivity that didn’t have a great-tasting pizza option before – and we hope this is a step toward a solution for many of these choice consumers.

    In addition to consulting with the NFCA along the process of training and testing – as well as earning its GREAT Kitchens Amber Designation for being an option for those with gluten sensitivity – Domino’s wants to continue to be as informative as possible. We encourage you to watch a video, featuring our Chief Executive Officer Patrick Doyle, that explains that while our Gluten Free Crust itself is free from gluten, we operate in a common kitchen and cannot recommend this product for those with celiac disease. http://www.youtube.com/user/dominosvids

    DISCLAIMER: Domino’s pizza made with a Gluten Free Crust is prepared in a common kitchen with the risk of gluten exposure. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness supports the availability of Domino’s Gluten Free Crust, but CANNOT recommend the pizza for customers with celiac disease. Customers with gluten sensitivities should exercise judgment in consuming this pizza.

    Most sincerely,

    Cleopatra
    Domino’s Pizza Customer Care

  8. says

    I couldn’t agree more. Recently a pizza place in my neighborhood has been taking out full page ads in local advertising papers touting their gluten free pizza. My husband went in and after speaking to the owner determined it was not ok for our celiac child. I hate more than anything when restaurants say well, this and this customer will eat it, etc. well if they want to risk their lives fine…not for our child.

    • altawrites says

      Renee – Thank you.

      Amy – I hope that as time goes on, more education is out there to help restaurants provide safe food for those who need it. Kudos to you for doing your research!

      Donna – Great email to Domino’s. I will contact them – I have contacted the NFCA already. Thanks.

      Cara – Thank you!

  9. says

    Alta,

    I’ve been silent about this issue as well — and plan to remain silent, other than to say, I have no desire to eat Domino’s pizza or any other “fast food,” regardless of its designation. Having said that, I understand the dilemma present on all sides and will leave the “hashing it out” to all of you in our community who have made eloquent and thoughtful comments regarding this. I value the varying opinions.

    Now, to the most important part of this post! I don’t remember this quinoa pizza crust recipe of yours and it looks amazing. This is what it is all about to me! Finding amazing and healthy alternatives to junk food (which is what Domino’s is). I am so glad your post included this recipe. This is the answer to all the hoopla that I’m anxious to sink my teeth into (pun intended). I’ve been looking for an easy, gum-free, healthy pizza crust and this one looks to be it. I also love the idea of baking it in a skillet. I’m going to make this soon and top it with roasted veggies. No need for cheese. A perfect vegan pizza that’s healthy.

    Thanks, Alta. I’m excited to try this pizza crust of yours!
    Melissa

  10. says

    Grest post Alta! Thank you for being honest and for standing behind what you think is right. I too agree that there should be no such thing as “Amber Designation” is seems counterintuitive and unsafe for those who have Celiac (and isn’t that who NFCA is trying to support anyway??). Just plain doesn’t make sense…

    Thanks again for sharing! Alyssa

  11. Nancy says

    I had the pizza last night and it was great. I am a little tired of the gluten purists and I am a little surprised at the misunderstanding about why other people would be on a gf diet. I have thyroid issues and my dr. asked me to stay away from gluten. Years ago when he asked me to do that there was very little on the market for gf people to eat and now there is so much more. I don’t eat pizza much, in fast, I don’t eat any grains much but I am thankful I can on special occasions. I think many of you have become such fighters for your disease that you can’t be happy with even the smallest steps. A company like Dominos is trying the best they can. No restaurant can be absolutely gluten free. You are always taking a risk! It may not be perfect but the least the gf community could say is “thanks for trying”. All of the purists sound very selfish and snoody.

  12. says

    Seems so bizarre to me to have a organization that is supposed to be supporting the gf community getting involved with this at all. As you say, it shows a gross lack of understanding. There is no kind-of gf, and to support and suggest that there is is ludicrous. Dominos pizza is still fast food and junk food too….so no loss for my family!

  13. says

    This is very well-written. I have been in an outrage over the so-called domino’s crust. I am outraged that they can get away with calling it gluten-free yet no precautions are taken. I am tired of gluten-free as being seen as trendy. Thank you for this post.

  14. says

    Great article Alta – yours is the best by far on this issue. It just goes to show that Domino’s has not fully done their research and the NCFA is a little lax in their judgement. I can’t wait to try your pizza crust – thank you.

    • altawrites says

      Faith – Thank you. Do let me know if you try it!

      Alaine – Thank you!

      Tessa – We don’t really eat fast food/junk food either, so no loss personally, but I still find there are some serious issues to iron out here!

      Nancy – Please understand that I don’t think any of us expect 100% perfection and 100% gluten-free restaurants. That’s just not feasible. I do want, however, for restaurants that choose to offer a gluten-free product and market it as such to make efforts to make it really “gluten-free”. Domino’s consulted with the NFCA in order to understand how to do this; and they opted not to implement the processes necessary. I don’t believe Domino’s is doing the best they can – other major restaurants are implementing cross-contamination reduction procedures, so I believe they could do so as well. My biggest beef, however, was the fact that they still call it “gluten-free” when it is not, and that the NFCA still gave them endorsement even though they didn’t do what was needed to help protect those who need a gluten-free diet. I find that confusing for those on a gluten-free diet. I do appreciate your input and opinions – thank you!

      Alyssa – Thank you!

      Melissa – I hope you try that crust! I love it!

  15. says

    Ridiculous! This is extremely well written Alta. I haven’t paid too much attention to this issue – other than reading headline. Your piece was the perfect one to read. I feel like this is a step in the right direction (another big chain tackling a gluten-free menu), but it seems like the NFCA just pulled everyone back a step. So weird!

  16. Cathy Stevenson says

    A group petition is going around. You might want to make this available on your blog. I’ve signed it because I fully agree with what you said. Here’s a copy from a post on Facebook:
    There has been much discussion about the Domino’s “GF” pizza in this group. There is petition to get NFCA to remove the Amber Designation in their GREAT Kitchens program.

    What say you?

    https://www.change.org/petitions/ditch-nfca-s-amber-designation?utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition&utm_term=friend_inviter_modal
    Ditch NFCA’s Amber Designation
    http://www.change.org
    ‎5% of the country’s health is up in the air because of ill-informed restaurant menus. There is no cure for celiac disease, and as of yet, there is no…..

  17. Sheila says

    What about the well-intentioned grandmother whose celiac grandchildren are coming for a visit. She decides that this “gluten-free” pizza will be easy for her and a nice treat for the grandkids….

    And what is this quote from Domino’s “While we can’t recommend our Gluten Free Crust for everyone, it provides an option to many impacted by gluten sensitivity that didn’t have a great-tasting pizza option before – and we hope this is a step toward a solution for many of these choice consumers.” ? The celiac community is relegated to bad tasting pizza? And no one wants to go to the effort to provide US with a “great tasting pizza option”? Well, thank goodness for people like Jules! I can’t wait to try the quinoa pizza! I am glad that my family and I are adventurous enough to try new things that turn out to be healthier as well. No fast food dilemmas for us! We choose good health through healthy eating!!

  18. says

    I have to chime in with that ‘AMEN’! Perfectly said, Alta. I have been shocked at all of this and still cannot believe that the NFCA would even stand on board with this. You have done an awesome job at putting what we are all thinking into a great post!!

  19. says

    I don’t need to write an article Alta! I’m simply going to direct people this this extremely well written and well researched piece! This is exactly what I wanted to say but haven’t been able to form the words. You did it eloquently, professionally, and thoroughly. Thank you so much! Sharing this with everybody I can!

  20. Joelle says

    I’m wondering if there is another term that can be used until it would actually be safe for celiacs. I do not have celiac disease, but do have a wheat sensitivity; it causes different issues in my body, but this would most likely be something I could eat, and what a blessing it would be to have a choice. Not knowing what any of the other ingredients are, I don’t know if it is something I would choose, and only if I am having a moment where I absolutely want to have some dairy. I agree it should not be labeled gluten free, as I have thought to myself on certain bags of things that mention cross contamination – this should not be labeled gluten free, I cannot share it with my celiac friends.

  21. Mae says

    We are newly GF due to my daughter being diagnosed with Celiac. I have been following the debate over Domino’s and everyone keeps mentioning that they are marketing to people who have “jumped on the GF trend”. I’ve never heard of this lifestyle before the diagnosis and am just wondering why anyone would choose this if they didn’t need to. Is this really a trend?

  22. Jodi says

    I agree that NFCA should only give a “green” designation, but I do applaud Dominos efforts in making it clear that there will likely be cross contamination. When you try to order a gluten free pizza, a warning screen pops up which clearly states that the NFCA “CANNOT” recommend this pizza for celiacs. At this point, you can link to a page to learn more about being gluten free, Dominos gluten free status, and you can choose to order or not.

  23. says

    You are SO right that most businesses do not understand what gluten-free means. I have seriously had the following conversation so many times that you can’t believe it….
    Does this dish contain any wheat products?
    I’ll ask. No…no wheat….just flour.
    Argh!
    Bless you for exposing the truth.

  24. Lisa H says

    Alta,
    I am new to the GF diet…going on three weeks now, but your site and blog has been very informative. I actually had no idea any of this was going on. I live in a very remote area of Pa. and there isn’t much of this kind of info going around.
    I was shopping at the only “health food” store a couple of towns away and when I asked if they use the same scoops for all of the bulk items and informed them that I was worried about cross-contamination, I was met with that deer-in-the-headlights look and asked what that was. I have IBS and Hasimoto’s and though my Celiac test was negative, I wanted to find out for myself if GF would help. I tried it a few months ago for about 6 weeks and didn’t really see much difference(and maybe a little worse), so went back to wheat…BIG MISTAKE! Then I found out that there is a withdrawal period that can last 6 weeks or more, along with casein withdrawal(I am now vegan, as well) which I also gave up at the same time. I am now back to GF and can honestly say I already feel better. I will say that I had no idea what I was in for and how hard it would be, (wheat is in evrything!)but I am determined to stick with it this time.
    I totally agree with your opinion of the NFCA “amber” designation…either you is, or you ain’t!

    • altawrites says

      Lisa H – Thank you! I am so glad you found the answer to your health issues. It is a difficult transition, but it’s worth it. :) Yeah, those bulk bins are not the safest. (I learned that slowly – it wasn’t something that occurred to me when I first went gluten-free) Best of luck to you!

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