Erin Smith knows a thing or two about keeping a gluten-free diet. She’s been on a gluten-free diet since age 2, when she was diagnosed with celiac disease.
Smith is the lead organizer of the NYC Celiac Meetup, and runs a consultancy business, GlutenFreelancer, which helps brands and restaurants connect to gluten-free customers. She also runs two blogs, Gluten-Free Fun and Gluten-Free Globetrotter. With these her goal is to encourage those keeping a gluten-free diet—whether as a lifestyle choice or for medical reasons—to live life to the fullest.
We had the chance to talk all things gluten-free with Smith. Find out what her favorite gluten-free spots are in the city, how Italy compares to the United States for gluten-free dining, and where hidden gluten lurks.
Epoch Taste: What are some of your favorite gluten-free dishes or spots in the city?
Erin Smith: I have so many favorite places in New York City. Some of my favorite dishes include chips and guacamole off the gluten-free menu at Rosa Mexicano in Union Square, gluten-free breadsticks at Risotteria, and all of the desserts from By the Way Bakery on the Upper West Side.
Epoch Taste: Any unexpected places that are offering gluten-free options?
Erin Smith: Jackson Heights in Queens is a great place to find gluten-free Mexican food while Astoria has many delicious gluten-free Greek options. My favorite is the homemade sausage from Ovelia, a restaurant that has been through gluten-free kitchen training and has the gluten-free items clearly marked on the menu.
I was very surprised to find so many gluten-free options in Italy. There is a greater awareness of celiac disease in Italy and gluten-free food is available in all of the pharmacies. You might never expect that the land of pizza and pasta would be so gluten-free friendly, but it is.
Epoch Taste: How does eating gluten-free in the United States compare to eating gluten-free abroad?
Erin Smith: Over the past 10 years, I have actually found it easier to eat gluten-free abroad than at home in the United States. Countries in Europe and Canada had gluten-free labeling regulations way ahead of the United States, which only implemented gluten-free FDA regulations in 2014. There also seemed to be a greater amount of awareness of a gluten-free diet as a medical necessity rather than a trend outside of the United States.
It is getting better in the United States, but I still think there is a long way to go. The first step was having the FDA establish the previously mentioned guidelines. The next step would be requiring restaurants to be completely transparent about ingredients and preparation. Unfortunately, I do not see this happening soon enough for those of us with celiac disease.
Epoch Taste: What’s the spectrum of people who eat gluten-free?
Erin Smith: Today, there is a wide variety of people eating gluten-free. There are those of us who require a gluten-free diet due to medical conditions such as celiac disease or other autoimmune diseases that respond positively to a gluten-free diet. There is also non-celiac gluten sensitivity and people with wheat allergies that also require a gluten-free diet.
Then there are the people who choose to eat gluten-free as a lifestyle choice. There is a misunderstanding that gluten-free is a good way to lose weight. This has not yet been scientifically proven.
Epoch Taste: Gluten-free seems to be everywhere these days. When did you start seeing a noticeable increase in popularity?
Erin Smith: There has been a huge increase in people eating gluten-free over the past five to eight years. I remember people staring at me blankly 10 to 15 years ago when I said “I must eat gluten-free.” No one had a clue what I was talking about. Now, it is becoming more common to see gluten-free items marked on menus and labeling on products in the supermarket.
Epoch Taste: Is that a good or bad thing? What opportunities do you see, if any, with the growing gluten-free trend?
Erin Smith: I think the growing gluten-free trend is both good and bad. It’s good when it comes to gluten-free labeling. After almost 10 years, the FDA finally passed gluten-free labeling guidelines in 2014. This makes grocery shopping somewhat easier, although I still always read labels very carefully.
In terms of restaurants, I think it could be bad and I recommend everyone proceed with caution. Restaurants are not yet regulated the same way packaged goods are required to meet FDA standards. I have been to many restaurants that will label something gluten-free but then have no clue about careful preparation in the kitchen.
Serving someone on a medically necessary gluten-free diet is very different from serving someone that chooses to eat gluten-free. When preparing food for someone with celiac disease, you have to be very careful about cross-contact with gluten-filled food. This means that all preparation including cutting boards, utensils, serving spoons, and even ovens need to be segregated to prevent contamination from gluten. People with celiac disease can have a reaction from even the smallest crumb of gluten. I appreciate restaurants exploring gluten-free options, but I really wish there was more education in the kitchen about celiac disease and being gluten-free for medical purposes. Gluten-free menus need to go beyond ingredients.
Epoch Taste: You work with restaurants that want to offer truly gluten-free options. What kind of services do you offer?
Erin Smith: I work with restaurants [like Senza Gluten] and companies that are trying to better understand and reach the gluten-free market. I help them learn about celiac disease and a gluten-free lifestyle. I also guide them to different staff training programs such as GREAT Kitchens, a kitchen training program started by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. This is an online course for chefs, managers, and waitstaff to learn all about gluten-free food preparation and handling. I have worked closely with the NFCA for many years both through my website and in-person events and have recently become an ambassador for this program.
Menutrinfo is another food training program that can certify a restaurant as gluten-free. They also have extensive allergen training programs through their AllerTrain online course.
Epoch Taste: Where might gluten unexpectedly lurk?
Erin Smith: Hidden gluten is a big challenge. There are places that someone newly diagnosed would never even think to look such as salad dressings, soy sauce (made from wheat!), spices, natural flavorings, and so much more. Candy can often contain gluten, which many people don’t think of. For example, Twizzlers are made from wheat. Label reading is essential for people who are gluten-free. Even after being gluten-free for more than 30 years, I still always read the labels because you never know when a manufacturer is going to change ingredients. It happens more than you realize.
Another source of hidden gluten is in medications. The FDA food labeling doesn’t cover medicine so the celiac community needs to advocate for better labeling. My biggest piece of advice is to call the drug manufacturer to inquire about ingredients before ingesting any new medications.
As someone that travels frequently, language barriers and cultural differences are often challenging. People don’t always understand what gluten-free means, especially in gluten-heavy cuisines and cultures. I always bring translation cards with me when I travel abroad and even use them in ethnic restaurants around New York City. These translation cards clearly define what gluten-free means and what foods contain gluten in other languages. While these cards and the gluten-free might not be culturally accepted, at least they can communicate my dietary restrictions.
Epoch Taste: How can you tell if a dish is truly gluten-free?
Erin Smith: Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to ensure your dish is 100 percent gluten-free unless you make it yourself or you go to a completely gluten-free restaurant. There are some at-home testers that exist but I have never personally used one of these kits. If I have any doubts something might not be completely gluten-free, I will not eat it. It is too risky.
Epoch Taste: What has been one of your most glorious solo trips?
Erin Smith: I have so many favorite trips that it is hard to choose just one. My first solo trip was in 2005 when I went to Sedona, Arizona and the Grand Canyon. While my friends were all slaving away in their New York City cubicles, I was exploring the great outdoors on my own. It was such a rewarding experience. Since then, I have been on more than 10 solo vacations. I find traveling alone such a wonderful and liberating experience. I highly recommend it to everyone at least once in their lives.
I absolutely fell in love with the city of Rome. The history, the amazing gluten-free food, the beautiful people, it was all so wonderful. I do not like to travel to the same place twice because I have such a long list of places I want to go, but I would return to Rome in a heartbeat.
The trip that felt like my most challenging yet successful was my two-week trip to Thailand. I was very worried about the cultural differences and language barrier when it came to eating in Thailand. There were definitely days I went hungry rather than get possible gluten contamination but I did manage to not get sick at all in Thailand. I used Thai translation cards throughout my trip and ate tons of delicious fresh fruit throughout my trip.
I found a small roadside restaurant in Ko Pha Ngan that finally understood my translation card and fed me pad thai daily for a few days in a row. I also had the amazing experience of sharing my leftover gluten-free pad thai and banana leaf with an elephant in the jungle of Chiang Mai, a day I will never forget!
Epoch Taste: If you could eat anything you wanted from anywhere around the world, what would you have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Erin Smith: Wow, that is a tough question! My favorite breakfast/brunch sandwich ever was the deep-fried gluten-free Monte Cristo from Coquette’s in Colorado Springs. I would eat a big lunch of Colombian patacones from the El Pilon food cart in Portland, Oregon. I would have dinner at a gluten-free friendly trattoria in Italy with gluten-free pasta, pizza, and Italian wine. Finally, I would fly over to Paris for a gluten-free dessert from Helmut Newcake, a place that I have not yet been to but is on my wish list!