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Sources of Cross Contamination in your Kitchen

Updated on May 1, 2013

If you have been diagnosed with a food sensitivity, allergy or other form of disease that requires you to eliminate certain items from your diet, you may be surprised of the places you didn't consider looking.

When I was first diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I knew this meant giving up gluten and I tackled the grocery store difficulties without blinking. But I overlooked one major source of gluten -- my own kitchen. It wasn't until I had been gluten free for nearly four months and still experiencing symptoms on a consistent basis that my husband and I discovered my problem.

Food prep and clean up can be a big deal if you have people in the house that do not have to adhere to a gluten free (or anything else free) diet. Cross contamination of your food happens when there is an item present anywhere near your food that you are not supposed to have and it somehow finds a way onto your plate. For the typical intolerant dieter, this might not pose a huge problem. But for someone like myself with Celiac Disease, or say a person with a peanut allergy, this can be a big problem. If you spend your time carefully checking labels at the grocery store, but then come home and prepare your food in a place that is not safe, you are causing yourself a lot of frustration. It may seem that all your hard work is for nothing because you are still sick frequently. Before you give up on the diet, try some of these ideas first, give it a month or two, and see if there is any improvement.

Sources of Cross Contamination during Food Prep and Cooking

  • If you share a toaster with a non-gluten free person. We ditched the stand up toaster and switched to a toaster oven. Now the non-gluten free person can put a piece of foil down and not get crumbs on the rack. Also, in a stand up toaster, there is a mechanism that "squeezes" the piece of bread to hold it in and the coils are extremely close to the bread. This causes a lot of residue to get left behind on the mechanism that holds the bread in. This is a big problem.
  • Cutting Board – If you use a wooden or plastic cutting board, you are running a high risk of cross contamination.If any gluten containing items are cut on that board, you can almost guarantee that there are bread crumbs in those cut marks.Switch toa glass cutting board, or use your cutting board for ONLY fruits and vegetables, and another cutting board for raw meats.
  • Skillets with nicks, scratches or gouges – for me, this was an extra precaution.We are not sure if it is doing us any good since we changed a lot in our kitchen at the same time.But my motto is better safe than sorry. For us, It was a simple thing to do, we didn't go out and buy a whole bunch of new pans, we had plenty, and I assume most households these days do.We had some older pans and some newer pans, so the arrangement my husband and I came to was that if he was cooking his stuff, he had to use the icky pans and I only used the newer pans.Simple enough. (There was one pan that I had to get rid of, although I have no idea if it was a problem or not. My cast iron skillet. Cast Iron skillets are awesome because they absorb spices and flavors over the years, I could not risk the possibility of gluten being lodged in there somewhere, however unlikely it may have seemed.)
  • Jars of Condiments – peanut butter, mayonnaise/miracle whip, butter, jelly/jams, etc. Anything that you spread on bread is a big contamination possibility.Surprisingly this was the first one we worked on when I was first diagnosed and my husband was the one who caught it.Spread your stuff on bread, stick the knife back in the jar to get more and viola, contamination city.We tried the squeeze mayo for a while, but I refused to pay $1 more for the squeeze jar every time and refilling it was a pain.So my husband just makes sure he uses a spoon to scoop it out and a knife to spread it. With the peanut butter, since we are huge fans of it and use it a LOT, we simply have separate jars in separate parts of the cabinet.The butter I get is in a tub and my husband hates it so that isn't a problem, but the same process we use with the mayo would work with that as well.
  • Baking/Cooking Gluten containing foods – gluten containing products are not a big problem in and of themselves as long as I am not cooking them, or eating them.However, any items with powder components are a big danger to those of us with Celiac Disease.Things like hamburger helper or macaroni and cheese with those powder cheese packets put clouds of gluten in the air.Cakes whether made from scratch or a box do the same thing and those microscopic powder particles can remain airborne for up to 3 hours!That’s a long time to have to stay out of the house.To solve this problem, my husband either cooks those items on nights when I will not be home for some time, or he takes the bowl on the back porch, combines all the dry ingredients with the wet and once completely combined and fully wet, he brings it inside.
  • Baking Pans/Muffin Pans – This one isn't really a huge issue if you are super awesome about cleaning them and not using a knife to unstick your cake from the side of the pan.I am not one of those people.I never get the pan cleaned soon enough and the corners are a nightmare for me.I always use a knife to separate the cake from the pan, leaving many scratches.There is just too much room for possibility of contamination for me, and this means my husband must use his own pans for baking.But we solved this simply enough since he doesn't do a whole lot of baking.Mostly a cake or two a few times a year.If you have a person in the house that bakes more than that, you could try using a color coding method.For example, gluten is baked in dark grey and non gluten is baked in light grey.You could also try buying pans with and without handles.
  • One Spoon Cooking -- The way I cook drive my husband crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one.I tend to use only 1 utensil when cooking.The spoon I use to stir the noodles also stirs the vegetables and meat.If you cook like this and cook both gluten and non gluten items at the same time, you are running a huge risk of cross contamination.
  • During Food Prep – Some trend as everything else, if you are preparing gluten items at the same time as non gluten items the risk for contamination is just too high.Cut up a loaf of bread and then chop up some vegetables.Did you wipe down the cutting board first?Did you wash the knife?Making sandwiches – did you spread the condiments while holding the bread over other food items?Consider them contaminated.
  • At the Dinner Table – Passing gluten containing items over the top of non gluten items and again you have a contamination issue. Stray crumbs are everywhere, and all over peoples hands, so they can fall anywhere. This can be a major problem at church functions, family gatherings, parties or group lunches.Luckily everyone knows my issues and I am always first in line so that I can get my food before everyone else’s gluten loaded plates pass over every dish on the table.

Now, this is not a huge list by any means, but the undertaking it would require to implement even half of these things can be very stressful. As I mentioned in "Gluten Free and still Experiencing Celiac Symptoms", take it slowly and carefully. Do not beat yourself up for not thinking of these things sooner, I had not thought of them myself for several months. I may not have thought of a lot of them at all had my husband not been so caring and concerned that he might accidentally get me sick. Trying to shop for, prepare for and cook for a family is difficult enough without adding a food issue into the mix. Try one thing at a time, once it becomes a habit, add in another item. You could post note cards on the cabinets to remind you as well.

Do not be ashamed to tell people that you have special dietary needs at social functions. You don't need to broadcast it to everyone, just discretly tell the host your situation and ask that if possible, if you could be told that food is ready just before he/she announces it. Then you can strategically place yourself in a position to be one of the first in line, and avoid feeling the need to explain yourself to everyone.

If anyone has any other suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comments. Happy Eating!


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