The 'Bubble Boy’ Seinfeld Episode
I love TV reruns! It’s like a surprise visit from an old friend. I recently watched The Bubble Boy episode of Seinfeld. In this episode, Jerry and Elaine meet a man whose son who lives in a ‘plastic bubble’ to keep his environment germ-free. The Bubble Boy is a fan of Jerry’s comedy so Elaine convinces him to visit the Bubble Boy on his birthday. George and Susan arrive at the Bubble Boy’s house first and play a heated game of Trivial Pursuit with him. When the Bubble Boy inevitably strangles George over a dispute during the game, the germ-free barrier is punctured and his safe zone collapses.
I felt like the Bubble Boy last week, trying to live in a gluten-free environment. When I plan to eat out at a new restaurant I call them to ask about their food ingredients and their preparation methods. Think that’s overkill? Maybe it is but it’s saved me from cross-contamination before. I don’t call if it’s a restaurant I’ve eaten at a thousand times before. I thought I was safe at my usual Vietnamese restaurant, but this time there was a new server.. I made sure this server knew I had a gluten ‘allergy’ and was a Celiac. He hesitated but he said okay. His uncertainty made me uneasy but since I didn’t want to make a scene in front of my work friends I said nothing. I certainly didn’t channel my inner Amy Schumer! When a different server delivered the food I confirmed again that my meal was gluten-free.
Two hours later (like clockwork) I felt a twinge of ‘gluten pain.’ I had some pain and a bit of bloating but luckily I avoided a full-blown attack. Phew, I’d escaped a weekend of recovery! We ordered in the next night but it was too soon for my system to handle any additional cross-contamination, so I still spent the weekend in extreme pain. Did you grimace with me? Yup, despite asking all the right questions my gluten-free ‘bubble’ was punctured two days in a row.
Can You Truly Avoid Cross-Contamination?
I got upset with myself for placing more importance on avoiding a scene than on my own safety. I can almost see Sherlock Holmes shake his finger at me because I didn’t trust my instincts. Would you make the same decision I did or would you send your meal back ? Could I have avoided cross-contamination using a Nima sensor?
Nima Sensor Pros vs. Cons
A Nima sensor is a portable device that detects the presence of gluten or peanut in your food. Many fellow Celiacs on Instagram own Nima sensors and they swear by it. They take it everywhere they eat and are able to successfully avoid gluten (even from cross-contamination).
Some key sales points on the Nima Sensor website:
It’s a supplemental tool to detect gluten and is not intended to replace questions about food ingredients and food prep methods.
Sample multiple portions of your meal. Ask for items in complex food dishes to be separated on the plate so you can test each of them.
Nima-tested city guides are available for a list of ‘safer’ restaurants.
The Canadian Celiac Association released a position statement in March 2018 about the Nima Sensor. In summary, the CCA does not recommend the Nima Sensor and will not recommend it until independent scientific data accuracy is available to support its efficiency.
Their three main concerns are:
The sensor tests only a small sample size that might not be representative of the entire meal. It could miss gluten by millimetres, and therefore miss its detection
Gluten can be difficult to detect in recipes containing multiple ingredients because changes occur during cooking, and other food ingredients may interact with the sensor and cause a false report
It’s not a validated tool: Can Nima’s type of investigative procedure detect gluten accurately?
As a Celiac you’re always at risk of cross-contamination if you eat food that is not naturally gluten-free or certified gluten-free. That’s the bottom line. Does that mean I eat only certified gluten-free? No, I don’t.
Here’s my mental checklist at the supermarket:
Is there a gluten-free option available? Save yourself time by looking for the gluten-free symbol before reading ingredients. Trust me on this one!
Is there gluten in the ingredient list? I know, this one is obvious,
Is there a disclaimer that says “may contain wheat” or “manufactured in a facility that processes wheat”? It’s easy to avoid these items when buying groceries, but we won’t know the answer to this one if eating out.
I do what I can to minimize the risk of cross-contamination but I still live with it because I want to stay true to what I love, which is living life as a social foodie at restaurants and gatherings with family and friends.
Let’s remember the moral of this story: always trust your instincts!