JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The numbers are pretty staggering: It's estimated more than two million Americans have an autoimmune digestive disorder known as Celiac disease, and the only existing treatment is a 100 percent gluten-free diet.
Many restaurants now advertise gluten-free menus. But are they really gluten-free? We put three popular chain restaurants to the test using EZ Gluten test strips and we took along local gluten-free blogger Jennifer Gornto of Gluten Free Jacksonville to help us.
Three years ago, Gornto dedicated to made a major lifestyle change. She went gluten-free after being diagnosed with Celiac disease.
At the time she knew very little about the autoimmune disease that was making her lethargic, foggy headed and constipated. She now knows her symptoms were triggered by certain foods she was eating. Her body cannot tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley.
"Living a gluten-free lifestyle is definitely a challenge," said Gornto
And eating out for those with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivities can be risky because consuming gluten can make them sick.
"Particles could be in the air. Someone on their gloves could have touched something that has gluten or wheat on it and then touch your food," explained Gornto.
We invited Gornto to come along with us to three restaurants that offer gluten-free menus to see if what is on those menus is really gluten-free.
First stop: P.F. Chang's, where using EZ Gluten test strips we tested two entrees and soy sauce. Each test involved several steps and took about 20 minutes from start to finish.
When the timer went off, Gornto was happy to see the results. All three items tested negative for gluten.
"I've always felt comfortable at P.F. Chang's because they use separate plates and really care and take precautions," said Gornto.
On to our next stop, Mellow Mushroom, where we tested a pizza, a pretzel off the regular menu and a gluten-free beer.
The beer and pizza were gluten-free. The pretzel, which we ordered as a control, showed a high positive just as we expected.
Our final stop was Chili's where we tested two soups, a chicken entree and mashed potatoes. All of them tested negative for gluten except for the mashed potatoes.
Chili's gluten-free menu does have a disclaimer informing customers that cross-contamination could occur and the restaurant is unable to guarantee that any entree can be completely free of allergens.
"It does make me question things that I think should be gluten-free and then it makes me think about people who might be new to gluten-free or newly diagnosed would easily think mashed potatoes would be safe ... You never know what could have gluten in it," said Gornto.
In a written statement to First Coast News, Michele Arnette, a spokeswoman for Brinker International which owns Chili's said
"Because the safety of our guests is of utmost importance to us, we try to make every effort to accommodate guests with specific allergen and dietary needs.
"Factors outside our immediate control such as suppliers, recipes, and kitchen preparation could impact the possibility for food items to come in contact with other food products. Our managers routinely consult with guests to prepare meals based on their allergy or dietary requests accurately "
First For You: To help make sure the food you order is gluten-free, tell the server that you are on a gluten-free diet and you can't have wheat, among other things.
Also, ask how the food is prepared and ask the server to remind the chef that your food must be prepared on a clean cooking surface with clean utensils to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.