Many cafe staff did not have a good understanding of standards around gluten-free food. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)
Almost 10 per cent of food sold as “gluten-free” at cafes and restaurants across Melbourne actually contained gluten, an undercover study has found.
City of Melbourne health officers made surprise visits to 127 food businesses across the city, taking 158 food samples for testing.
The results, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found one in 11 samples contained or were contaminated with gluten.
The foods included common menu items such as burgers, risottos and banana bread.
Gastroenterologist Dr Jason Tye-Din from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute said gluten posed serious long-term health risks to people with coeliac disease.
“They include osteoporosis, infertility, increased risk of miscarriage, impaired growth, nutrient deficiency and an increased risk of certain cancers, including lymphoma,” he said.
Failing the gluten test
|Food item tested||Gluten content
(parts per million)
|Roast vegetable salad||80|
|Salt and pepper squid||80|
|Rice paper rolls||51|
Source: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute
According to food standards in Europe and the US, food that contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten is safe for those who are intolerant.
For severe coeliacs, even smaller amounts can make them ill.
Some of the foods tested during the study had up to 80ppm.
The disease — an allergy to gluten that causes damage to the intestine — affects approximately one in 70 Australians.
Four out of five sufferers unaware that they have the condition.
A strict and lifelong gluten-free diet is the only treatment for those with the condition.
Dr Tye-Din said not everyone with the disease experiences symptoms after gluten exposure but the internal damage was still being done.
“Many people might have the false sense of security that they’re fine when they eat out, and not know that they’re essentially getting poisoned,” he said
Dr Tye-Din said the study confirmed what many of his patients have experienced.
“Many say, ‘yep I knew it’, because they’re coming home after eating out and they’re getting sick,” he said.
‘This is not a lifestyle choice’
Law student Angelique Nikitiuk was diagnosed with coeliac disease four years ago after experiencing prolonged dizzy spells and fatigue.
Initial tests showed her small intestine was severely damaged.
Coeliac Angelique Nikitiuk finds it difficult to eat out without fear of falling ill. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)
“The test results were really bad. So from then on I was gluten-free,” she said.
Now 21, her strict diet has since restored her intestine to health.
While she still eats out, she said it is not straight forward.
“I’ve had a few not-so-great experiences. You’re having to check the food is actually gluten free and you get the occasional eyerolls,” she said.
“You have to ask things like is the bread toasted in a separate toaster or do you fry in separate oil. You feel like you’re being a nuisance for checking.”
Ms Nikitiuk said she often visited the same cafes and restaurants because she knows she will not encounter problems.
“I definitely have my regular places. Or I just eat at home for the security and to avoid the hassle,” she said.
The study also looked at the knowledge and training of gluten-free food preparation among staff, with only 10 per cent found to have good knowledge of the food standards code.
Dr Tye-Din said food outlets needed better training for staff, warning the problem was likely to be worse in rural and regional areas.
“This is a snapshot of inner-city Melbourne. This is probably a conservative estimate,” he said.
“This is not a lifestyle choice. There are people whose health really depends on this diet.”