“I never used to read labels. I never cared,” Oliva says. “But now I read them every day.”
The job of buying gluten-free foods may become easier if the FDA adopts a final regulation defining what “gluten-free” used on a food packages means. Currently there is no legal definition. Rios is hopeful the final regulation will be in effect later this year but it has been in the writing stage since 2007.
“It will mean that a food labeled gluten-free really is gluten-free,” she says.
And it will mean that foods manufactured with other foods won’t be cross-contaminated. This is a big problem both with manufactured foods and foods served in restaurants.
Gluten can be transferred from one food to another by as simply turning a chicken breast with a spatula that was used to flip a breaded chicken breast. Even a toaster used to toast wheat bread can transfer gluten to a slice of gluten-free bread, Rios says.
“And what’s safe today may not be safe tomorrow,” she adds. After all, companies can change the formulation of a product at any time.
Clearly, eating gluten-free takes vigilance.
At school, parents must work with teachers to be sure their child isn’t given a cupcake or cookie at snack time. (All-purpose flour generally comes from wheat).
Manuel’s mother gets around this by packing his lunch as well as his snacks. She fills his Spiderman and Lightning McQueen insulated boxes with his favorite gluten-free macaroni and cheese. She adds a bit of gluten-free dry cereal to munch and slices of his special bread.
“I always have to think ahead about where we’ll be when so there’s plenty for Manuel to eat and we won’t have to rush home,” Oliva says.
At birthday parties, she provides him a meal plus a treat such as lollipops. When other celebrants are digging into the pizza and cake, she tries to distract him by heading him for the bounce house.
Although Oliva finds all the planning and packing gluten-free meals requires time, she is happy to do it.
“I was devastated when we were told Manuel had celiac disease,” she says. “But now I know that if he follows his gluten-free diet, he’ll thrive. He’ll grow up, go off to college and be just fine.”