Published: December 22, 2020

Dealing with coeliac disease and gluten intolerance during a global pandemic

by Chloe Lange and Adrián Noriega de la Colina, Science & Policy Exchange

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have suffered many adjustments in their service as they had to adapt to this “new normal”. Not only have they expanded their delivery or take-out services, but also the in-room dining experience has totally changed for the immediate future, but how does this affect people with coeliac disease or gluten-intolerance? Do restaurants still take into consideration our needs? If I am a customer with coeliac disease, how can these concerns be acknowledged?

As a person diagnosed with coeliac disease over a year ago, the most comfortable way to deal with it when eating any meal is by cooking at home. However, because of the pandemic, when buying food from the grocery store, we are unable to find the correct products for our diet. Panic buying, which empties from the shelves the gluten-free products that are needed by coeliacs, and the incorrect product labeling, which does not specify gluten sources, are a couple of the issues we have faced. Therefore, the other alternative we have is restaurants. Do they have what it takes to solve our concerns to have a 100% gluten-free diet?

What is gluten? Why is it bad for some people?

For starters, gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. What this protein does is to shape and act as a glue to give the food the chewy texture that we see in regular bread. However, gluten is not only found in bread and crackers, you can also find it in products you would not expect. For example, wheat is found in baked goods, pasta, cereals, salad dressing, sauces, etc., barley is found in beer, soups, food coloring, malt, etc., and rye is found in rye bread and cereals. Also, it is important to have in mind that when ingesting any type of food, it may be cross-contaminated by utensils and surfaces used for gluten products.

Today, a growing part of the world population has health problems related to gluten, for example, coeliac disease, gluten intolerance, wheat allergy, etc. Coeliac disease, which is the most common, is an autoimmune disease that rejects gluten, and thus, if ingesting it, it can cause the following symptoms and conditions: malnutrition, skin rashes, osteoporosis, lymphoma, infertility, and much more. According to Health Canada, “it is estimated that it affects as many as 1 in every 100–200 people in North America. As many as 300,000 Canadians could have this disease”. This is why we consider it the most common gluten-related health disorder.

As coeliac disease and other gluten-related illnesses have raised more awareness in the past few years, the gluten-free market is expanding. According to Brand Essence, “experts expect more than 7% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in a span of 5 years, i.e. from 2019 to 2025.” Therefore, as we can see, there is a larger demand for gluten-free products as gluten-related illnesses are becoming more common.

Finding gluten-free products during COVID-19 pandemic

As said before, people with a gluten-free diet find it easier or safer to cook at home. Nonetheless, people living with gluten intolerance or coeliac disease have faced some challenges when doing grocery shopping during the global pandemic.

The first issue was panic buyers. As the pandemic started, people were taking from the supermarket shelves whatever they could find, depleting the supply of gluten-free bread, pasta, or other products much needed by coeliacs and people with gluten intolerance. It is important to remember that for people who suffer from coeliac, it is not a choice, and they do not have many options when it comes to grocery shopping. This issue was more pertinent at the start of the pandemic.

The second issue is the suspension of enforcement of product labelling requirements in Canada. What this means is that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in order to prevent food waste, has allowed products that have been labelled according to USA requirements, to be sold in Canada; therefore, not identifying correctly if a product contains barley or an ingredient derived from barley (i.e. malt). US labeling requirements do not include an enhanced declaration of gluten sources, as Canadian labeling requirements do.

How can restaurants be aware of celiac disease or gluten-intolerant customers?

Moreover, the restaurant service has had to make big adjustments as well because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These adjustments include more take-out/delivery and restaurants that did not offer delivery services before had to accommodate. Also, in-person service is at a bare minimum and with a two-meter distance when possible, the capacity in the restaurant has been reduced to half, and people stay in restaurants much less than before.

Consequently, just as restaurants have had to follow these guidelines mentioned above, they also need to take into consideration people with gluten intolerances. Some of the approaches they can take are: train employees to be ready to answer any gluten-related questions, have separated equipment to not cross-contaminate them, mark gluten-free dishes on the online menu and in-restaurant menu to reduce in-person questions, use what you already have to create gluten-free dishes, and finally do not mark gluten-friendly dishes because it causes the same damaging effect to coeliacs.

All restaurants, in Canada and around the world, need to adjust to the new COVID-19 guidelines when reopening. However, respecting and acknowledging the needs of coeliac disease and gluten-intolerant customers is just as important because, as we have seen, people have encountered several issues when buying their gluten-free products from supermarkets and grocery stores during the pandemic. Restaurants need to take the measurements necessary to attend to gluten-free customers so they can be 100% safe when ingesting their food. Additionally, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has to continue labeling products correctly, by identifying gluten sources, to help retail customers and restaurant purchasers buy the correct products when looking for gluten-free food.