3 Things We Can Learn About Celiac Disease From Italians

Being Italian (or traveling to Italy) and being celiac might seem incompatible, but the opposite is true. Italy is one of the most accommodating places for people with celiac disease, and has a lot to teach about how to handle it.

1) “Celiac” holds more weight than “gluten-free.”
It doesn’t need to be said: Going gluten-free is just as much a fad as it is a medical treatment. When I order food, I ask if it’s gluten-free rather than ask if it’s safe for celiacs. I adopted this habit years ago, when I realized that saying “celiac disease” was met with the blank stare of cluelessness to what those words meant. I was much more successful when I started saying “gluten-free,” likely thanks to how popular gluten-free has become. Though I still see that blank stare sometimes.

The other day I was told that the gluten-free items on the menu were not recommended for celiacs because “they’re not totally gluten-free,” which I gathered means there is some cross-contamination. So if “gluten-free” is treated differently than “gluten-free for celiacs,” is my strategy at restaurants harming me?

In restaurants in Italy, it is common knowledge how to deal with customers with celiac disease, because Italians in general are very knowledgeable about it and take it very seriously. And as someone said in Italy, they treat gluten-free differently than if someone says celiac. If we do the same thing here, it seems like that distinction will be an important one for celiacs to make as fast-food and restaurant chains start putting gluten-free (but maybe not totally) items on their menu.

2) Acceptance paves the way to knowledge.
The prevalence of celiac disease among the Italian population led to their acceptance of it long before gluten-free became a “thing” in the US. Their acceptance has allowed them to gain knowledge of how it should be handled. Once accepting it as a serious medical condition, they learned about how to handle and treat it, rather than disregarding the treatment as a fad.

“Gluten-free” as a term is prevalent in the US, sure. But it’s not so much accepted with less than an eye-roll because of its fad qualities. In the case of “gluten-free,” the fad and the medical treatment are not mutually exclusive. But simply because gluten-free eating is in some cases a fad — and celiacs aren’t unaware of that — doesn’t mean that it should be disregarded as a treatment. The fad will pass. But celiacs will always be gluten-free.

3) Gluten-free food can, and should, taste just as good as “the real thing.”
I’m going to cheat here a little bit and talk about an Italian restaurant in the U.S. rather than one in Italy. I was at my favorite Italian restaurant some time ago. The pasta is excellent and reminds me of the homemade pasta I had the last time I was in Italy. But back then I wasn’t gluten-free. So while I was delighted to see that this restaurant offered gluten-free pasta (and various kinds, no less) I was prepared to be disappointed, to yearn for the “regular” pasta which was so delicious.

So when I took a bite and asked the waiter, “Are you sure this is gluten-free?” I was thrilled when he nodded his head, because I wasn’t able to tell the difference. I immediately had everyone at the table who had ordered the regular version of my dish try the gluten-free version to compare. They couldn’t tell the difference either.

When I realized that it was actually possible to make gluten-free pasta that doesn’t taste gluten-free (“mushy” and “like cardboard” are a few descriptions I’ve heard… or said), I couldn’t imagine that good Italian restaurants in Italy would serve less than excellent pasta, gluten-free or not. I suppose a perk of acceptance and knowledge of celiac is improvement to the available treatment.

– Kaitlin Puccio