Millions of Americans have some sort of sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. However, many more have cut down on eating gluten-filled foods for more ambiguous reasons.
Only about 1 percent of people suffer from celiac disease, an intestinal condition brought on by gluten. Some people have severe allergies that prevent them from eating foods with gluten in them.
But, a whopping 11 percent of households in the country maintain a gluten-free lifestyle, with roughly one in four consumers believing that avoiding the protein would be healthy for everyone, according to a study last year by NPD Group, a market research company.
For the majority of these gluten boycotters, the stakes are relatively low. More than half of gluten-free consumers polled said they have considered abandoning the diet simply because of the taste and high prices of such products.
That's not the type of luxury that San Diego resident Donna Duarte has. Now 50, she was diagnosed with a wheat allergy about 10 years ago. That means that she's had to dramatically change her eating habits to avoid most products containing gluten.
"I do know the gluten-free diet is something that many people have embraced as the latest fad," she said. "I wish it was a fad for me, but it isn't. I don't have an option."
For her, exposure to gluten-laden vittles could be fatal, causing her throat to swell shut and suffocation. She carries epinephrine and over-the-counter antihistamines with her at all times. She's had more than a couple dozen exposures, including a handful of scary and costly ambulance rides.
You might think Duarte would be bitter about all the gluten-free posers, but she's not. In fact, she's thrilled that over recent years hating on the gluten has become so fashionable. As a result, many eateries today offer gluten-free dishes, some with whole menus sans gluten.
"I'm thankful that media has told people about and educated the public about it," she said. "It's actually made it easier for me to go to restaurants, so I can socialize with my friends."
Still, she's very careful when she goes out to eat, often letting managers and staff known she's not just avoiding gluten for kicks. At restaurants, cross-contamination is a big issue, she said, such as gluten-filled soy sauce at a Chinese restaurant inadvertently making its way into her supposedly gluten-free dish.
"How the manager responds will determine whether I feel comfortable to stay in that restaurant and eat or not," she said. "I never push myself onto a restaurant because if they are not comfortable with the situation, I'm not going to feel comfortable with the situation."
For all the glutophobes and legitimately gluten-intolerant folk out there, CityBeat asked Duarte to run down her top five eateries that offer gluten-free eats. Here's what she came up with:
Stacked (7007 Friars Road) in the Fashion Valley Mall offers a customizable menu of Americana favorites—such as burgers, wings and fries—boasting more than 150 gluten-free ingredients to choose from.
Boll Weevil 53 (9621 Mission Gorge Road) in Santee is a hamburger joint with a separate gluten-free menu, which includes burgers, fries and beer. The restaurant has a dedicated deep fryer for its alternative menu.
Sushi Freak (5175 Linda Vista Road) just north of Old Town is a build-your-own-roll sushi house, which offers gluten-free soy sauce, rolls without rice and steamed chicken sans gluten-tainted teriyaki sauce.
Blaze Pizza (5604 Balboa Ave.) up in Clairemont Mesa offers affordable build-your own pies with gluten-free thin crust. While the restaurant doesn't have a dedicated gluten-free oven, the staff is aware of issues relating to cross contamination.
Woodstock Pizza (6145 El Cajon Blvd.) in the College area does customizable gluten-free pies, featuring a thicker-crust experience. The eatery also offers a robust selection of salads and gluten-free beer.