An education on celiac disease

An interview with an executive of the CDF opened my eyes to this auto-immune disorder.

By 
Paul King, Editor

Do you know how much gluten it takes to make someone suffering with celiac disease ill? I didn’t, but I do now—and it isn’t very much. It was just one of several facts I was made aware of this week when I interviewed Marilyn Geller, COO of the Celiac Disease Foundation.

I sought Ms. Geller’s insight as part of an analysis article I am working on regarding last December’s agreement between the Department of Justice and Lesley University that requires the Cambridge, Mass.-based school to provide gluten-free foodservice for necessary students under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She gave me more than insight. She made me aware of just how sensitive an issue this can be.

Ms. Geller’s main point was that gluten-free dining is not simply a matter of offering celiac disease sufferers or even people with gluten sensitivity appropriate foods. More important is the issue of cross-contamination.

“Awareness of celiac disease is important, but is it translating to a healthier environment?” she asked. “A salad bar can be gluten-free, until someone drops croutons into the lettuce bowl.”

That comment prompted me to ask the question, how little gluten is too much? The answer, according to the Food & Drug Administration, is a mere 20 parts per million.

“It only takes a microscopic amount to make someone with celiac disease ill," explained Geller, whose son has the disease. "it can be as simple as eating french fries that were cooked in the same oil used to fry chicken nuggets. The gluten molecule is very sticky; it can be left on colanders used to drain pasta that aren’t cleaned properly.”

A second point made by Geller was another perspective on celiac disease. While it is true that only about 1% of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, “that makes it the most prevalent auto-immune disease.” (Auto-immune disorders are those that cause the body’s immune system to create antibodies to attack a person’s own tissues. They include such diseases as multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.)

She added that her foundation appreciates the level of awareness that has been generated in the foodservice industry in recent years.

“Five years ago, most restaurant servers hadn’t even heard the word gluten,” Geller said. “Now they know what it is. Whether they truly understand about gluten is another matter.”

What is the level of understanding the CDF would like to see?

“You wouldn’t say to a diabetic, ‘eat just a little sugar,’” she noted. “That’s the kind of awareness we need about celiac disease.”

I’ll have more on the Lesley University ruling and its potential impact on the foodservice industry in the May issue of FoodService Director.