Gluten-Free food in Italy: a new path to Italian flavors

ItalyGluten-Free, a land whose cuisine is known world-wide thanks to gluten-rich staples such as pasta and pizza, is actually quite celiac disease friendly. Nearly one percent of Italians test positive for celiac disease, which is an intolerance for gluten, a protein found in wheat.  This percentage is on par with the global average, so the increase of gluten-free options is not driven by a higher affected population in the nation. Rather it is actually wheat’s pervasiveness in Italian cuisine that has increased public awareness of the disease and has spurred the growth of the gluten-free market in the southern European peninsula.  In fact, currently there are roughly 4,000 restaurants in Italy that offer senza glutine (gluten-free) options, and the number of cities throughout the country without a gluten-free restaurant is sharply decreasing.

For a country in which food is at the center of one’s social life, being unable to share a pizza with one’s friends is not merely an inconvenience but it is actually quite problematic, both socially and psychologically. It is for this reason that research regarding celiac disease began earlier in Italy than many other places.  In fact, the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (Italian Celiac Association) was founded in 1979 and today many of the world’s top celiac disease experts are from Italy.  In restaurants in Italy a gluten-free request is not taken with annoyance but rather empathy, and gluten-free foods can be found in pharmacies because they are seen as medicine for people who suffer from celiac disease.  In fact, celiac disease sufferers also receive about 100 euros monthly through the national health system in order to purchase gluten-free items.  Also, tourist information offices in many Italian cities like Turin now offer guides with pages of names of restaurants with gluten-free options.

Travelers to Italy who have celiac disease should also take note of the fact that many regional specialties do not contain wheat; pizza and pasta are a significant part of Italian cuisine but there is much more to try.  For instance, farinata, a thin crepe made using chickpea flour, is a staple in the region it originated from, Liguria, as well as Tuscany.  In the northern regions like Lombardy and Trieste, polenta, a porridge made from cornmeal, is king.  Finally, a dish that is arguably as popular in Italy and as versatile as pasta, risotto, is also gluten-free.

Though it might seem counter-intuitive at first, Italy is actually the perfect destination for someone with celiac disease. There is an empathy and an attentiveness for all types of food allergies in Italy that is not always common in other places.  Italian chefs know every ingredient that goes into the food they make and it is this attention to detail that makes Italy a haven for those who suffer not only from celiac disease, but food allergies in general.

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