Restaurants and Gluten-Free Menu Claims

Restaurants and Gluten-Free Menu Claims

In Honor of Celiac Disease Awareness Month, Gluten Free Watchdog is writing a series of articles (the goal is one per day during the month of May) related to the gluten-free diet–currently the ONLY treatment for celiac disease.

Post (#22)…

When the FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule was finalized in 2013 there was a lot of confusion around whether restaurants were included under this rule. It didn’t help matters that the FDA was a bit slow in providing a definitive answer.

With a lot of help from former FDA Consumer Safety Officer Rhonda Kane, MS, RD, we were able to get the FDA to agree to a statement posted on

All of the following are true:

  • FDA requirements for gluten-free claims apply to ONLY packaged foods that are subject to FDA labeling regulations.
  • BUT, FDA guidance suggests that any use of an FDA-defined food-labeling claim on restaurant menus should be consistent with the regulatory definitions.
  • Restaurants should not use an FDA-defined nutrient content claim for foods sold in restaurants unless those foods meet regulatory requirements for the claim.
  • A gluten-free claim is an avoidance claim and FDA has publicly expressed its opinion (in the Federal Register and in a guidance document) that it takes a similar approach to gluten-free claims made for foods sold in restaurants.
  • If restaurants or other retail food establishments wish to make “gluten-free” claims (or the synonymous claims “no gluten” “free of gluten” or “without gluten”) for any of their menu items, these foods should meet all of the requirements FDA has established for a food labeled gluten-free, including not containing 20 parts per million or more gluten, whether or not the presence of gluten is due to accidental cross-contact occurring in the kitchen.
  • If restaurants cannot ensure that the foods they prepare fully comply with FDA’s definition of gluten-free, restaurants should not refer to their foods as being “gluten-free.”
  • If a restaurant manager confirms that a menu item bearing a gluten-free claim is made with an ingredient prohibited by FDA regulations on gluten-free food labeling, or if any persons sensitive to gluten become sick after consuming restaurant foods claimed to be gluten-free, it is important that these cases be reported to both the overseeing state agency and to FDA (see Consumer Complaint Coordinators listed by state at

Bottom line: Restaurants are NOT covered under FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule BUT FDA does not want restaurants using an agency-defined labeling term incorrectly. Restaurants should not label menu items gluten-free if the menu item when delivered to the consumer is not in compliance with the rule.

A note about Rhonda Kane, MS, RD: Rhonda’s dietitian colleagues know what a gem she is and how lucky we were to have her at FDA. But you still don’t know what you have until its gone. For me personally the FDA is much harder to navigate now that Rhonda has retired. What many folks may not know is that Rhonda tirelessly worked on the gluten-free labeling rule. This rule is not perfect but it is far better than it would have been had Rhonda not been involved. Rhonda is one of my heroes.

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Comments (4)

  • Joanna Davis Reply

    Two months ago, I ate at an Olive Garden restaurant near my home. I am a celiac and had enjoyed a gluten free meal there twice, with Parmesan pesto sauce off the gluten free menu. This time however, I Have been struggling with autoimmune reactions six weeks following the meal. I talked with the manager the next day when I knew I had been glutenated. She was very understanding and sent me a note later that when she checked out the menu I had been served the sauce had been changed with gluten or carrageenan, she was not clear about this in the note. Corporate had forgotten to take the sauce off the gluten free menu!!!! Needless to say , I am most unhappy and sick from this mistake. I am a celiac who has the same autoimmune reaction to carrageenan, the wheat of the sea-made from seaweed, that I do to gluten. Gluten free is not a fad, but very serious for celiacs and the waitstaff was instructed, so I want other celiacs to ask before eating anything on the gluten free menu at the Olive Garden.

    May 31, 2017 at 6:39 pm
  • Joanna Davis Reply

    If you are a celiac, do not eat at the Chessecake factory. Their gluten free menu is full of disclaimers and they do not follow instructions, cross contamination is a huge problem. And corporate is just patronizing. “We are so sorry you got sick after eating at our restaurant”. I responded that I guess the whole corporation was “sorry” when it came to the needs of a celiac.
    I have sworn off eating out, EVER!

    August 20, 2017 at 6:20 pm
  • John Bell Reply

    I just returned from a cruise on the Royal Caribbean ship Brilliance of the Seas. I ate dinner in the main dining room. On the first night, I told the waiter that I am Celiac. From then on, they did everything right. The waiter and the head waiter both knew me personally and worked with the chef to meet my needs.

    That said, the dining room menus regularly show some items as gluten free. This is done with a wheat stem symbol on the items. The symbol is explained with a foot note at the bottom of the menu. Similar symbolism is used for lactose free, vegetarian, and no sugar added items on the menu.

    On the 10th night of the cruise, I ordered coconut layer cake, an item designated with the wheat symbol as gluten free. Three other people at our table ordered it too. The cake they brought me was a simple two layer cake while the ones the non Celiac people got were three layers and much fancier. When I asked the waiter why, she told me that the other cakes weren’t gluten free. To that I said, “But the menu says they are gluten free.” The reply to that was that the symbol only means the items “can be made gluten free”. I pointed out that there’s nothing said on the menu about “can be”. I also pointed out that I was sure the designations of “vegetarian” and “sugar free” weren’t “can be”. She said the chef had told the waiters about “can be” for gluten free at a pre-dinner staff meeting.

    This upset me. I believe it’s a real trap for the unwary and contrary to standard procedures in restaurants in the US, so I protested to management. I talked to the Head Waiter and to his boss, the Dining Room Supervisor.

    The head waiter told me exactly the same thing the waiter had told me. In addition, he told me he felt sorry for a lady that was dining in the dining room on the cruise that hadn’t let them know she was Celiac until the 5th night.

    The dining room supervisor told me he understands my concern and would report it to Royal Caribbean HQ through their regular reporting process. I told him that if they don’t want to add “can be” to the menu, they ought to remove the information they show about gluten free entirely. He told me they couldn’t add “can be” or remove what is there. Corporate HQ in Florida won’t let ships make any changes to the menu format.

    Bottom line is that until the cruise line recognizes their error, Celiacs cruising on Royal Caribbean must tell the wait staff about their needs immediately. The people on the ship will go out of the way to take care of us, but only if they have been told the concern.

    August 21, 2018 at 6:14 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to post about such an important issue. This also occurs in restaurants. Folks, please do not assume that a menu item marked as gluten-free will be made gluten-free. Always convey your needs to the waitstaff.

      August 29, 2018 at 6:11 pm

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