How to Avoid Cross-Contamination if You Have Coeliac Disease

Changing to a gluten-free diet after being diagnosed with coeliac disease sounds simpler than it actually is. It means learning to read food labels which can be fairly challenging, especially initially. But one of the most difficult aspects of coeliac disease is learning how to avoid cross-contamination. The tiniest crumb, even just a single grain of wheat flour, will cause damage.

What is Coeliac Disease?

Where Do You Find Gluten?

Gluten is in wheat, barley, rye and oats (unless the oats are gluten-free).

By law, in the UK, food manufacturers must declare any allergens in a product. So if you learn how to read labels, you will find safe and unsafe food easily. Labels also show if products “may contain” gluten, or if they’ve been “produced in a factory where they work with gluten-containing ingredients”. If you have coeliac disease, you also need to avoid those products.

Learn to Read and Understand Food Labels

Arranging Your Kitchen When You Have Coeliac Disease

When you’re first diagnosed, check through all the food in your fridge and cupboard. This will help you to understand the labels which will help you when you go shopping and let you see what you can and can’t eat. Some food will be fine, even though it’s not marked as gluten-free. However, don’t use something that is already open. For example, don’t use packs of butter, jars of jam, pickles etc which you or anyone else used prior to your diagnosis as they may contain gluten crumbs.

If you live on your own, donate any food that contains gluten to a food bank or give it to a friend – if it’s not there, you can’t eat it by mistake. When you live with other people, it’s a little bit more difficult but with a little bit of organisation, it’s manageable.

Try to make at least one cupboard and a shelf in the fridge gluten-free zones. If that’s not possible, move things so that you will have at least one side of a shelf just for yourself.

Before you fill them with safe food, clean the shelves in case there are traces of gluten from bags of normal flour or pasta to avoid cross-contamination. Use some damp kitchen roll to clean them so that you lift flour dust then it won’t fall elsewhere.

Label Your Food

You should label your food if you keep it in a shared fridge or cupboard. Tell everyone in the household the importance of not using your labelled food to ensure nobody sticks a knife covered with crumbs into your jam.

If you want to keep food separate but don’t have cupboard space, you could use storage boxes and even keep them in another room.

Do You Need to Replace EVERYTHING in Your Kitchen to Avoid Cross-Contamination?

I often see people on coeliac groups panicking because someone has told them that they need to replace everything they own including crockery, cutlery and even ovens! This is not the case. You don’t need to replace everything which has been previously used for gluten-containing food. However, it’s advisable to stop using and replace the following items:

  • a toaster
  • wooden or old scratched plastic spoons and spatulas
  • grooved or badly scratched non-stick pots, pans and oven dishes
  • scratched or cracked ovenware
  • wooden or plastic chopping boards
  • sieve for baking

The toaster is obviously going to have gluten-containing crumbs and there is no way to clean it well enough to make it safe. The other items in the above list could be harbouring gluten. If anything is porous, has scratches, cracks or grooves, they are difficult to clean so there may be gluten present. But all other crockery, dishes, cutlery and utensils should be fine after being washed well. If oven trays are badly scratched, you can still use them if you line them with baking paper, tin foil or silicone sheets. You definitely do not need to buy a new oven.

Coeliac disease - how to avoid cross-contamination. The image shows some bread and crumbs on a breadboard.

Tips to Avoid Cross-Contamination

“Sharing is Caring” but it’s not when you have coeliac disease. It can be dangerous. Other people’s gluten will have consequences.

  • Don’t share butter, jams, chutneys, tubs of soft cheese and patés etc. When other people use them, they might contaminate them with crumbs. Buy your own, store them on your coeliac shelf in the fridge and label them with your name or a brightly coloured sticker. If you cannot buy your own and you need to share with others in your household, make sure everyone uses a clean knife or spoon with no double-dipping. If you don’t trust people, put some into a sealed and labelled container for yourself.
  • Wash your hands after tidying the kitchen. If you handle a tub of butter or a jar of jam which someone else has used, there might be tiny crumbs on it. If those tiny crumbs go onto your hands, they might find their way into your mouth.
  • Use your own breadboard. Store it away from other boards so that nobody else can use it.
  • Never share a toaster. If you can afford it and have space, buy a new toaster just for yourself. Put a cover on your toaster or keep it in a cupboard to stop other people from accidentally using it. Alternatively, make your toast on a grill, an air-fryer or use toaster bags.
  • Don’t use or share unwashed knives, cutlery, plates, cups or glasses. It sounds really basic, but it’s sometimes easy to forget.
  • If space allows it, try to have a small workspace area just for your gluten-free food prep. Don’t let anyone use that space to butter their toast or make a sandwich. Having your own space will save a lot of extra work trying to clean thoroughly each time you want to make food. It will also save mix-ups with knives etc.
  • Use kitchen roll to wipe up gluten crumbs. If you use a sponge or cloth to lift crumbs, you will transfer the gluten to other work surfaces. So use kitchen roll to dispose of the crumbs, then clean your worktops as normal.
  • Wash your hands immediately after preparing or serving gluten-containing food. It might seem as though you have to wash your hands a lot but it will help you to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Disposable catering gloves – if your hands get sore from washing them so much, you could wear disposable catering gloves.
  • Tell other people (including children) to wash their hands after eating food containing gluten. If people have been touching food like sandwiches, toast, sausage rolls or breaded chicken, their hands will be covered in gluten. They might then transfer gluten onto shared surfaces like door handles, telephones and remote controls.

Avoid Cross-Contamination When Cooking

  • It’s easier and safer to cook gluten-free meals for everyone in your household. If you buy ready made sauces, check the ingedients – many of them are gluten-free. Some supermarkets sell reasonably priced gluten-free pasta. Use cornflour to make sauces or homemade gravy. You can buy gluten-free gravy too – it’s nice and doesn’t need to cost a fortune, especially if you buy a large tub online. Other members of your household can still eat normal bread, cereal and treats etc but mealtimes will definitely be simpler by cooking everything gluten-free.
  • Baking – try to only bake gluten-free. Flour has a mind of its own. It flies everywhere and lands on everything. If you use normal wheat flour, you will have to clean up really well afterwards because there will be gluten in every nook and cranny in your kitchen.
  • It’s good to have your own kitchen utensils if you are often cooking gluten-free and normal meals at the same time. It will save confusion and double dipping. Coloured silicone spoons, spatulas, whisks and tongs are ideal as they will stand out.
  • If you are cooking normal and gluten-free food at the same time remember which is which by putting your coloured spatula or spoon into the gluten-free pan.
  • Use different shapes of pasta if you are cooking normal and gluten-free at the same time. The gluten-free will be easily recognisable while it’s cooking and when you are serving. This brilliant tip to avoid mix ups comes from a member of a coeliac group.
  • Never fry gluten-free food in a fryer, frying pan or air fryer after cooking gluten-containing food. Gluten will still be present and will contaminate your food. A dual air fryer is good as you can keep one side totally gluten free so that it will always be safe.
  • Never cook gluten-free food and normal food in the same pan or oven dish at the same time. For example, don’t cook gluten-free sausages together with normal sausages. Even if they’re at opposite sides of the pan or oven dish, gluten will contaminate your gluten free food.
  • Use separate strainers for pasta. Keep one especially for your gluten-free food as they can be difficult to clean well.
  • Put gluten-free food above normal food in the oven if you are cooking both at the same time. This means that gluten doesn’t spill or fall from the normal food and drop onto yours.
  • Keep two sets of oven gloves – one for gluten-containing food and one for gluten-free because crumbs will inevitably get onto oven gloves.
  • You could also colour coordinate your gluten-free utensils, boards, oven gloves etc. Obviously, this isn’t necessary, but if all your kitchen equipment is the same colour, everyone in the house will know they are for gluten-free use only. If you can avoid confusion, you will avoid cross-contamination.

You may be interested in reading this
Myths About Coeliac Disease

Other Common Questions About Cross-Contamination

Can a Tiny Crumb Really Hurt?

The short answer is yes.

Most coeliac disease sufferers will feel the consequences of being glutened by eating the tiniest crumb of gluten. They may have symptoms such as diarrhoea, sickness, bloating and headaches. However, some people don’t feel a physical effect after eating gluten. But the gluten will be doing internal damage. That damage will cause malabsorption of vitamins and minerals and could lead to pain, brain fog, osteoporosis and fertility problems amongst other problems.

Can’t I Use One Slot of a Toaster for Gluten-Free Only?

No. Crumbs from the gluten side will find their way to the other side.

Do I Need to Wash Dishes Seperately and Do I Need Seperate Sponges and Tea Towels?

No. You can wash dishes together and dry them using the same tea towel.

Wash away gluten crumbs under a running tap before you start, then you can wash dishes together either in a dishwasher or by hand. You can use the same tea towel to dry them because the dishes are clean, so the tea towel won’t be in contact with any gluten.

Do I Need to Bleach Worktops to Make Sure They’re Gluten-Free?

No. Gluten is a protein, not a bacteria, so bleach won’t ‘kill’ it.

Kissing and Hugging Partners and Children

You can still get up close and personal with your partner and you can definitely kiss and hug your children. However, if they’ve been eating or drinking anything containing gluten, they should clean their teeth and wash crumbs from around their mouth first.

Can Pet Food Cause a Problem?

Most pet food and treats normally contain gluten. So after feeding your pet or handling their food, wash your hands. You could always buy them gluten-free treats for those times that you won’t be able to wash your hands.

I hope this might help you to avoid cross-contamination. I know it seems like a long list of things to think about but once you’re in the habit of working this way, it becomes second nature.

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6 thoughts on “How to Avoid Cross-Contamination if You Have Coeliac Disease

  1. Excellent and important post! I don’t have coeliac but I have gluten sensitivity and can’t eat it. Gluten is everywhere and even if it is not hidden in your food it gets in through cross-contamination! Good point about the flour. Haha I have made some gluten-related cartoons and I have one more that I am working on.

    1. You’re right, gluten seems to be in almost everything. When I was first diagnosed, I got quite a shock reading food labels.
      Oh, I’m looking forward to seeing your gluten related cartoons. Your cartoons are fabulous.
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Wow, there are so many things I wouldn’t have thought about, like previous cutlery and kitchen appliances. These are fantastic tips that will be so helpful for both those newly diagnosed, and those living with it for several years. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to consider numerous aspects of what you eat and how you eat it whether you’re at home or out and about. xx

    1. After a while, it becomes second nature but when first diagnosed, there’s really a lot to think about. It might seem like being a bit OTT to some people, but a tiny crumb from cross-contamination will make most coeliacs really poorly.
      Thanks for your comment, Caz

  3. This is such a fantastic post, full of really helpful tips. I have a gluten allergy and really wish I had your post available years ago when I first had to transition to avoid gluten and found it overwhelming and restrictive. Fortunately there’s a lot more gluten free options and resources available now but it’s still difficult when eating out at restaurants where you can’t guarantee they take all the necessary precautions and lots of food has the may contain gluten or is packed in a factory where gluten is handled. People really don’t understand the negative impact a tiny amount of gluten can have, I often get told “Surely a little bit can’t hurt you?” so thank you for highlighting this. This post will benefit so many, thank you.

    1. Oh, eating out is a nightmare, isn’t it? You’re lucky if a restaurant has two gf choices on a menu, but you don’t know how careful they are. I’ve heard of some chefs saying that gluten burns off at a high temperature!!!
      Nobody would say, ‘surely a little peanut won’t hurt?’ to someone with a peanut allergy. Considering how common coeliac disease and allergies/intolerances to gluten are, there’s still very little understanding.

      Thanks for commenting, Lucy.

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