What’s a little cross-contamination among friends?

In the time that I have had to deal with Celiac Disease, the  one thing that strikes me as being most difficult for others (non-celiacs) to understand is the whole “cross contamination” issue.

On one hand, I fully understand why there is a disconnect when it comes to truly understanding what those words mean….  I mean, you hear someone can’t have gluten….then you figure out (sort of) what gluten IS.  So then you think, alright – just avoid foods that have wheat,barley, rye and oats (I know, technically not gluten, but that is another issue).  So you think, no worries!  I will make some cookies that use other flour and it will be totally gluten free.  Then when the celiac can’t eat it you wonder, “what the heck?!?”  Or you pick the croutons off of a salad and wonder why your friend is puking their guts out 20 minutes later….
When most people have allergies or are on diets, we (as a society) tend to think of that as meaning “these people must eat LESS of a certain type of food.”  People rarely make the connection to “these people must NEVER eat ANY of this kind of food.”  (with the exception of peanut people…) …and even if a certain segment of society gets that far, they often fail to grasp that “ANY” means “ANY – including microscopic particles.”

Ever since I have been in this altered-plane of existence (being gluten free), I find myself watching things (constantly) that I never really paid attention to before.  Like:

* Whether a plate with my food is carried above a plate containing food with gluten.

*  Whether someone at a party is leaning over the gluten free food while munching on normal crackers.

* Whether the waiter/waitress handles a plate containing gluten foods and then uses the same hand to grab my plate.

*  Where the waiter/waitresses’ thumb goes in relation to my plate (invariably, IN my plate)

*  Whether people are taking serving utensils from the gluten free food and using them for other things temporarily. (also known as “Why I Can’t Eat at Buffets Anymore”)

*  When a bag of GF chips are opened at a party, if someone has reached into it for chips or whether they pour them onto a plate or bowl.

*  Whether my daughter touches a table-top in a restaurant while eating a meal.

*  The faces of other celiacs when they spot something going awry with the above examples.

*  The faces of friends / acquaintances when I interrupt a seemingly normal conversation by leaping backwards and clutching my personal bag of Cool Ranch Doritos to my chest like I am shielding a baby from a lion attack….all because someone came up and tried to grab a handful of chips out of my bag after eating a sandwich.

In all of these situations (and so very many more…), I am not afraid that I will be eating food that contains gluten…I am afraid of having my gluten free food cross-contaminated by people who have TOUCHED gluten.  Often times, the first question I get asked when discussing that I cannot have ANY gluten is, “Well, how much gluten can you have without having an allergic reaction?”  (This is wrong on so many levels, never mind that Celiac Disease is not an allergy but an auto-immune disease….but I digress…)  I can explain the whole “20 parts-per-million” thing until I am blue in the face, and people will nod politely, but so far, the only method I have found to really convey what cross contamination is like for a celiac is this:

I look people straight in the eye and ask them how much rat poison is okay for them to ingest.  I ask them how comfortable they would be eating dinner if the waiter’s thumb had touched the plate after he had set down a bowl of rat poison on the table right before mine.  This usually elicits a weird, puzzled reaction from the person I am conversing with, so I have to quickly follow up with the missing connection:

“See, gluten is poisonous to me….so having someone handle my food after handling gluten is just like them handling YOUR food after handling rat poison.  I’m sure you’d be watching to make sure they wash their hands and put on clean gloves.  You’d be paying attention to see that your plate is above the rat poison plate and not being jostled while being carried below it.  You’d keep an eye on that sneaky opposable thumb that always seems to end up IN your plate just after being in the rat poison plate, and you’d certainly freak out if someone whose hands were covered in rat poison tried to reach into your bag of chips!  Heck, half the time you might think about going to dinner and after picturing all that rat poison all over the restaurant kitchen just decide it isn’t worth the effort of going out.”

Suddenly I see a light-bulb go off.  The mysterious “GLUTEN” suddenly is something tangible that normal, non-celiacs can understand…their brains are visualizing something akin to a yellow box with a cartoon rat-face with X’s for eyes…. suddenly it isn’t this picky diet thing that no one understands… it is RAT POISON, and who the heck doesn’t understand that???

I have found that this technique works well among friends, but it works particularly well among strangers, because in reality, you only have a few seconds to get them to “get it” so you can move on to discussing something more enjoyable….like anything else in the world except gluten……  and I have found that this makes for a very memorable impact, and hopefully spares the next celiac from having to explain the whole reason they can’t eat any of the gluten free food that was provided at an event sometime in the future.

(sometimes I wonder if people in the 1800’s would have better understood the concept of “germ theory” better, had the scientists of the day just said, “It’s like touching rat poison – you might not see it on your hand, but you sure wouldn’t want to stick that hand in your mouth without washing it off first!”)

And don’t be fooled – my “rat poison” theory isn’t JUST a gimmick. (I say “just” because on one hand it IS a gimmick, but it happens to be true, too.)  Gluten is like rat poison to us celiacs.  Many times people focus on how sick some celiacs get when exposed to gluten, but bear in mind that that sickness is just a symptom of the disease….it is just a warning that serious damage is being done.  A celiac exposed to gluten has a shorter life expectancy, so gluten has every bit as much potential to kill as rat poison does….it may be slower, but it can be just as painful, and the end result is the same:  death.

Like it or not, we have to educate people, and the more people that understand the serious nature of this disease and it’s required diet, the better you will be, the better I will be, and the better celiac kids will be.

So, what’s a little cross contamination among friends?  Turns out, what it is, is a good opportunity to change the way people perceive the eating habits of celiacs.

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About AccidentalCeliac

I am an architect living in Minneapolis who was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I also am a mother of two children, one of whom has Celiac Disease, as well. This blog is about all things related to navigating the many terrains of gluten-free living. I hope to share tips and experiences, post news and fun ideas, vent a little, and share anything else that has to do with this lifestyle that so many people are now living with.

6 responses to “What’s a little cross-contamination among friends?”

  1. Tracey Allen says :

    Great blog – yes I can relate – the Chinese food party with family and someone takes the spoon from a dish I can’t have and puts it in a dish I could have right up until the contaminated spoon was put in it. Wondering as an architect if you are aware of the problem with gyproc and it containing wheat startch – we did a reno and discovered this problem and then just built a passive solar house and thankful the gyproc used doesn’t have gluten.

    Tracey Allen
    Simplify and Save http://www.simplifyandsave.ca
    Author http://amazon.com/author/traceyallen

    • AccidentalCeliac says :


      This is why I love getting comments about my blog…
      I am researching this very thing right now, as it had not even occurred to me that there would be gluten in gypsum board / drywall products.
      I will be writing a follow-up blog post about it once I get all of my research done. (so feel free to follow me or to check back in a few weeks, if you want.)

      This is fascinating, yet potentially horrifying.
      Thanks for the comments!!

  2. Suzanne says :

    Well said!! This is why we go to so few restaurants, and why my husband (the one w celiac) is always first in line for any family buffets, why we have separate pans (not even stored in the kitchen) that we use I we want to cook something with gluten. Cross contamination is misunderstood!

  3. Missy B (@MarketingMama) says :

    I totally get this, as my daughter has life-threatening food allergies. Cross contamination is very challenging for people to understand – especially if they believe their counters, pots, pans and bowls have been “cleaned well” after they made peanut butter cookies, etc. Never used the rat poison example before, but now that you put it in my head, I bet it will come out at some point.

  4. Jessica says :

    Hi Alissa,

    Thank you for such a great article and a great tip! I’m going to use the rat poison analogy LOL. It’s a great analogy and really drives the point home. I am constantly having to explain that I have a disease and it’s not just a little sneezing, it’s a full-blown nightmare. I think the only person who really understands my situation is my roommate who has to watch the aftermath of what happens to me when I accidentally ingest gluten through cross-contamination. My life is turned upside down for weeks. Again, great article, definitely going to use “rat poison”. Thank you!

  5. Becky Shaw says :

    This is a wonderful article – thank you! My celiac disease started a year ago and it has been horrendous trying to find all the hidden gluten, let alone dealing with the cross-contact issue. I have tried to compare it to pollen (“you can’t see pollen, but it makes you sneeze, right?”) but even then, people in the family don’t get it. I am going to use this (and cite you as the brilliant author, of course) next time relatives arrive and are upset that I frisk them at the door for illict gluten products. I think they will really understand this! Thank you!

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