Woman invites restaurants to compete for gluten-free diet training

Woman invites restaurants to compete for gluten-free diet training

URBANA — Eating onions that were grilled on the same surface that grilled a hamburger bun isn't a big deal for most people.

But a seemingly small thing like that can make Dana Mancuso and other people with celiac disease sick.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, and even cooking surfaces and utensils that have touched foods with gluten can contaminate a non-gluten food, says Mancuso, 42, of Urbana.

This makes it difficult for her and others with celiac disease to eat at restaurants, she says, but she hopes to add at least one more restaurant in the area where people on gluten-free diets can eat worry-free.

Mancuso is inviting restaurants to enter a drawing to win online training in safe gluten-free food preparation — paid for by her — for the winning restaurant's owner or manager.

She also hopes this contest will make more restaurants aware of safe cooking practices for people who need to stay gluten free.

"I would like to have a lot more local places that don't pre-make all their stuff, and understand more about the cross-contamination issue," Mancuso says.

Celiac disease affects 1 percent of people in the U.S., and about another 6 percent of the population is considered gluten-sensitive. The disease damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with food absorption, and the only treatment is avoiding foods containing gluten.

That also means a pre-made salad with croutons at a restaurant is out of the running, because most likely croutons have touched the lettuce, says Mancuso.

Chinese food from restaurants is largely out, unless gluten-free soy sauce was used in the preparation, and getting fast food anywhere is difficult because food is typically cooked on a single grill, she says.

Biaggi's got serious about offering safely prepared gluten-free selections about a decade ago because it was getting a lot of requests, says Scott Miller, managing partner at the Champaign restaurant.

Biaggi's corporate chef put together a full gluten-free menu that includes pastas, pizza, entrees, salads, appetizers and a couple of deserts, he said, and the staff has been well-trained on the cross-contamination issue.

Because the restaurant makes everything from scratch, offering gluten-free selections hasn't been much trouble, Miller says.

"You have a fresh pan for every dish and just grab one and use it for gluten-free only," he says.

Mancuso, who was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, tends to check out restaurants before she dines out. At home, she has her own peanut butter and butter because they could be cross-contaminated by utensils that have touched bread, and having her own means her family doesn't have to worry about being careful.

Cooking for a family can be a challenge when you have celiac, she says, but "most things are still fine."

She can still eat any kind of unprocessed foods and there are flours available that are made from a variety of other products, such as chickpeas.

Mancuso's contest for restaurants will offer online training through the GREAT (Gluten-free Resource Education Awareness Training) Kitchens program offered by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Any restaurants interested in winning the free training can contact her by email at danamancuso@yahoo.com and leave a message. She will conduct a random drawing May 20. She also plans to provide the non-winning restaurants with information about the training program and how to get it at a discount, she said.

Gluten, celiac and you

— About 83 percent of Americans who have celiac disease are either undiagnosed, or they're diagnosed with the wrong condition.

— Diners ask for 200 million gluten-free meals a year, and 30 percent of adults want to eliminate or reduce gluten in their diets, according to research posted by the National Restaurant Association.

— As of last August, the FDA says foods labeled gluten-free must contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten and meet the terms of a new definition.

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