For people living with coeliac disease, even small amounts of gluten can damage their intestine and cause inflammation – triggering bloating, diarrhoea, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. There’s also an increased risk of certain cancers. You’re born with a genetic variation that makes you more likely to develop coeliac disease, and once diagnosed, you have to stay away from gluten for life. That means no pasta, bread, cereal, beer – most anything that might contain certain grains like wheat or barley. So can you trust what you buy from a store to be gluten-free when it’s billed as such?
In this study, the researchers trekked around to 127 food spots in Melbourne that were advertising different foods as gluten-free. They picked up these foods – things like banana bread, rice paper rolls and chicken risotto – and took them back to the lab where they were tested for gluten content. Of the 158 items of food collected, 14 had gluten – about 10 per cent of all samples. And in at least one case, the food outlet sold a wheat-based food when a gluten-free meal was asked for, which the researchers said reflected the lack of understanding people with coeliac disease report getting when they try to search out food items to suit their diet. Many of the samples containing gluten had amounts of gluten higher than considered safe to consume.
The same researchers did earlier audits of Melbourne businesses and found that rates of compliance had improved but there were some repeat offenders. The study also found that only one in 10 people serving food had an understanding of Australia’s food standards. If the business had no staff training, odds of compliance with food standards went down 75 per cent.
It’s tricky having coeliac disease and even more so when foods advertised as gluten-free turn out not to be. The researchers want better training and awareness of the issues among food businesses to stop this sort of thing from happening. If you are shopping around, maybe it’s best to go to a franchise. In this study, franchise businesses were seven times more likely to comply with gluten guidelines. The researchers put that down to it being more likely a franchised outlet provided staff training and food handling guidelines.