Gluten Free Restaurants in Toronto: Where (Not) To Eat

Toronto Life

"Gluten-free" is a term very commonly thrown around these days. With an estimated 300,000 Canadians suffering from a gluten intolerance, many restaurants are in competition to offer diners a viable alternative. But how many eateries in Toronto that claim to offer gluten-free meals actually follow through with their promises? And how can you tell what restaurants are genuinely offering a 100% gluten-free meal?

Gluten Free Scan by Michael Mandiberg
Gluten Free Scan by Michael Mandiberg

In this article, I'll attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff (pun very much intended) and explain why establishments must be clear and concise about exactly what they offer.

Gluten - Hard to Digest, Difficult to Avoid

First of all, why would anyone want to avoid gluten?

Well, for the most part, people who want to avoid gluten have a gluten intolerance of some type. There are many kinds of gluten intolerance, the most common of which is celiac disease. For those of you unfamiliar with the condition, celiac disease is when the immune system reacts to proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. These proteins damage the fibres in the small intestine, making it difficult for the sufferer to absorb nutrients in food. So the disease can in turn lead to chronic stomach pains, fatigue, and—in some cases—even more serious conditions such as depression, infertility, or anemia.

As more about the condition becomes known, more and more companies are offering alternatives to foods that may contain gluten. It would appear that there's a huge demand for these products, with CNBC predicting that the gluten-free market will be worth a whopping $3.4 billion in 2015.

How To Make Gluten Free Bread by Jodimichelle
How To Make Gluten Free Bread by Jodimichelle

Dangers of Cross Contamination

Whether you have a gluten intolerance or a personal choice to avoid products that contain gluten, you'll find many restaurants offering customers a seemingly gluten-free menu. You'll notice I use the word "seemingly." Let me explain why.

Imagine that you are unfortunate enough to have a gluten intolerance and you're feeling hungry. You spot a restaurant offering a gluten-free menu and gleefully venture inside in hope of a meal that you can enjoy without having to miss two days of work afterwards. You order your meal with a side of gluten-free nachos and enjoy only to find yourself curled in a fetal position just a few hours later, cursing the chef and swearing vengeance upon them.

Chances are that the chef has indeed prepared you a gluten-free meal, but it has been cross-contaminated because it hasn't been prepared in a gluten-free environment. My friend Nida suffers from celiac disease and has found herself in this very situation for this very reason. She explained,

I've eaten at BJ's Restaurant, Olive Garden, and Chili's with their supposed gluten-free options, but have always had a reaction later due to cross-contamination.

I used to also frequent Jason's Deli, but they changed their habits with gluten-free choices (they basically decided it was too much work to change gloves) and stated that there is risk of cross-contamination.

Jason's deli

This is a very common theme. Many restaurants in Toronto that offer a gluten-free menu now include a disclaimer, stating that although the food is gluten-free, it may not have been prepared in a gluten-free environment. Hogtown Vegan, for example, has a great gluten-free choice on its menu but also has a disclaimer advising,

Please note due to the risk of cross-contamination, our food is not suitable for those with severe gluten allergies.

Pizza Pizza, Dominos, and Subway offer similar disclaimers that, to their credit, are at least very clear.

I spoke to a friend, Stephen, who works at a Pizza Pizza outlet in York. He explained,

Basically, we don't have the space. We have two tiny work surfaces which is barely enough to make regular pizzas on. If someone orders an item from the gluten-free menu, we'll make it with gluten-free ingredients but we don't have the time or the resources to ensure it's made in a 100% gluten-free environment.

Pizza pizza
Pizza Pizza

So, to cut a long story short, if there's a disclaimer, then really, it isn't gluten-free. This isn't fair to those who have dietary needs that require them to avoid such products. The finer details of what the restaurant offers as gluten-free should never prompt the customers to investigate.

Popping the Question

It would actually be more straightforward for these restaurants not to offer a gluten-free menu at all rather than offer a "gluten-free" menu with items that may contain gluten and expect the customer to be the one who double-checks the small print and asks about the environment the food was prepared in. My friend Nida, whom I mentioned earlier, admits this is always an awkward but important question to ask:

I usually ask. I have to ask, even if the waiter hates it. I'm not being rude, but hell, that's my health I'm worried about. So yeah, even if they state gluten-free environment, no cross-contamination, I do ask.

But fear not. Some restaurants take gluten-free food very seriously. After checking out Kupfert and Kim's website, I spoke to them to clarify that their food was indeed 100% gluten-free and was given a friendly yet no-hesitation answer,

Yes, our food is 100% gluten-free. It's prepared in a gluten-free environment so that there is zero chance of any mix-up.

Other places, like The Teatree Cafe, also guarantee a completely gluten-free environment, stating that they take the utmost care to ensure the food they serve is completely vegan and gluten-free.

Gluten Free Vegan Lemon Cupcakes by Michelle N
Gluten Free Vegan Lemon Cupcakes by Michelle N

If, however, like me, you aren't vegetarian, the fantastic Kensington Cornerstone offers probably the most diverse gluten-free menu that you will find in the entire city. They advertise their food as being safe, fresh, and delicious—and their reviews would suggest that this is indeed the case. Even better, if you like a cold one to wash your meal down, they also offer some fantastic gluten-free beers. Their website shows their commitment to ensuring that any dietary requirements, not just gluten-free, are looked after:

Our kitchen is entirely gluten-free. (I'll double-assure you: Everything in the kitchen is gluten-free.) Also, we make it all from scratch and will happily accommodate most other sensitivities.

kensington cornerstone menu
Kensington Cornerstone Menu

For anyone who has a friend or a partner who suffers from a gluten intolerance, you'll be all too aware that their condition generally decides where you eat out. Toronto certainly has plenty of options. But depending on the severity of the condition that your dining partner suffers from, you may find yourself having to do some homework and accepting that you will be limited as far as what kind of food you can eat.

With more and more people finding themselves unable to eat gluten as part of their diet, there is not only a growing desire but also a need for restaurants to offer a value-for-money, gluten-free section in their menus. This obviously creates some logistical problems for the eateries. But with so much demand, some truly gluten-free investments will pay off handsomely in years to come.

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