What Every Canadian Celiac Needs to Know to Vacation Safely in Tampa

Between the great Cheerios debacle and all the reports of "hidden gluten", travelling in the U.S. can be terrifying for someone from Canada. 

In this Canadian Celiac in Tampa blog series I give lots of information and share my experiences so you can travel in the US with confidence..

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pinterest image - palm tree and ocean taken at Crystal Beach Florida

This is part one of my Canadian Celiac in Tampa blog series.  I'm here for a couple of months and I'll chronical what it's like for a celiac snowbird to live gluten free in Tampa, Florida.   

For the intro and some background, check out my newsletter here on my Substack.  If you're interested you can subscribe so you won't miss anything.

For the next installments follow these links:

Part 2: Planning a Gluten Free Tampa Vacation That’s Fun, Safe and Stress Free

Part 3: Road Trip Advice for a Brave Canadian Celiac Driving to Tampa

Part 4: Making Your Gluten Free Vacation Home Fit Your Needs

Part 5: How a Canadian Celiac Does Gluten Free Sightseeing in Tampa

What's Different About Living Gluten Free in Tampa?

There are specific issues that face a Canadian travelling in the U.S. and trying to maintain a celiac safe gluten free diet.  We and our neighbors to the south have much in common, but many things are different:

Labelling Laws Are Different

In Canada we’re used to trusting labels 100%.  Thanks to the Canadian Celiac Association, we have excellent labelling laws in Canada and excellent compliance.

Tampa Bay Riverwalk.  Kennedy Blvd. entrance looking south.Tampa Bay Riverwalk

In the U.S., there are regulations around putting a gluten free claim on a label, but from what I’ve gathered reading various blogs and forums over the years, compliance can be a problem. 

According to the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) a product must be below 20ppm (parts per million) to be labelled gluten free.  So far so good.  That’s the same threshold as we have in Canada.

Where we run into trouble is with compliance.  The FDA has a mechanism to report products labelled gluten free that make you sick, or that independent tests show to have gluten content over 20ppm.  The difficulty seems to be getting them to do anything about it. 

Celiac advocates like Gluten Free Watchdog, Beyond Celiac, The National Celiac Association, and Gluten Intolerance Group, work tirelessly to bring issues to the attention of the FDA and often get results, but it’s an uphill battle.  Because of this, American celiacs cannot be quite as confident of labels as we are in Canada and often rely on communities and information offered by the above groups to confirm if their food is really safe.

For a Canadian celiac in Tampa, or anywhere in the US, trusting gluten free claims on the label is the first issue, but what about what’s not on the label?

Do American Food Labels Have to Show Gluten Ingredients?

No.  In Canada gluten sources (barley, rye, oats, wheat, triticale) must be declared on the label.  The U.S. has identified 9 major food allergens that must appear on food labels1.  Those are:

food label showing allergensNotice "malt flavor" with no source provided. This would not be safe for celiacs.
  • Wheat
  • Sesame
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Milk
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans

You’ll notice that 3 of the 4 sources of gluten are missing.  Wheat is the most common one and a good place to start, but wheat free does not mean gluten free.

So what does all this mean for a Canadian celiac hoping to vacation gluten free in Tampa?  Do we give up and just stay home?

Not a chance.

How Can A Canadian Celiac Eat Safely in the U.S.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, a gluten free claim on a food label means the food is most likely safe.  The exceptions are few and you can find them with a quick internet search. So just do what you do at home and read the labels.

When reading labels to determine safety in the U.S., look for the following:

  • A gluten free claim on the label
  • Obvious sources of gluten like wheat, rye, or barley
  • Malt (can come from several sources and a common one is barley.  It’s not required for the source to be on the label)
  • Brewer’s yeast (often comes from barley so best to avoid.  Yeast and yeast extract are fine)
  • Oats (unless specifically labelled gluten free)*
  • Other forms of wheat like spelt, triticale and others.

*I personally will be avoiding oats while I’m in Tampa.  There just seems to be too many issues even with gluten free oats.  

Some Brands are Different

Don’t just assume that because you can have a certain product or brand in Canada that it will be gluten free in the U.S.  For example:

  • Many alcoholic coolers that are gluten free in Canada are made with malt in the US.
  • Cheerios and other General Mills cereals have a gluten free label in the U.S. but their testing does not meet Canadian standards.  Do not eat these even in the US.  (link gf watchdog article)
  • McDonalds fries are generally considered safe in Canada.  In the U.S., it’s a bit more complicated
  • This one is good news; Worcestershire sauce which is usually made with malt vinegar in Canada, is often made with white vinegar in the U.S. making it safe for us.  The one I miss is Lea & Perrins.  They have a GF version here, just be sure to check the label.

You will find some familiar gluten free brands like Udi’s, Schar, and Bob’s Red Mill.  These are all safe in the U.S. as well.  And as you explore, you’ll find other brands and products that we don’t have in Canada.  You may even discover some new favorites that you’ll look forward to on future trips or to make special requests of friends travelling south.  Here are some I've seen recommended:

  • GF Kraft Dinner
  • Mission GF Tortillas
  • GF Girl Guide Cookies (Walmart)
  • Canyon Bakehouse Bagels

Restaurants are Different

chick-fil-a store front

When you cross the border, your familiar go to restaurants may all but disappear.  Instead of Boston Pizza, Montana’s and Casey’s, you’ll find Chick-Fil-A, Popeye’s and IHop.  So keep your Find Me Gluten Free app handy.  Here is a good list of restaurants that offer gluten free options.  Most of these can be seen in the Tampa area and along the road if you’re driving.

Other than that, restaurant dining is about the same.  Some restaurants have gluten free menus, some have gf options indicated on the main menu, some are knowledgeable, some are not.  These tips for safe gluten free restaurant dining apply no matter where in the world you are.  

Grocery Stores are Different

We Canadians have come to trust President’s Choice products from Loblaw’s stores and we know where to find our favorite gluten free products at Metro, Food Basics, and Sobey’s. 

Publix in Tampa storefront

Here in Tampa I’m seeing Publix, Aldi, and Winn-Dixie. 

I’ve found gluten free products in all of them but I find Publix has the best selection of naturally gluten free fresh produce and the aisles are well laid out making other products easy to find. 

I'm told Aldi has a Live GFree brand.  I haven't been to Aldi yet but will look for that and report back.

Meat and eggs are expensive here (I saw some eggs over $8 a dozen!) but we’re learning where to find deals.  Winn-Dixie has one or two door crasher meat sales on the weekend.  We picked up t-bone steaks today for $4.99 per pound.  That’s half price.

Nutri S'Mart Store Front in Tampa

I’m also on the look out for specialty shops, health food stores etc. that may carry specialty gluten free products.

In Lutz there is a small health food store called “The Main Ingredient” on Collier Pkwy.  They have mostly bulk flours, spices and teas.  Nutrition Smart on Bruce B Downs Blvd is a full health food grocer with meat and produce, plus organic, gluten free and keto products. 

They even have a supplements section that sells CBD remedies if that’s your thing.

That’s the roundup for this week.  A few tips to help you understand what you’re getting into.  Watch for the next installment where I’ll get more into the planning of your trip and how to get to Tampa, safely gluten-free.

<--Intro: How a Canadian Celiac Can Vacation Gluten Free in Tampa

Part 2: Planning a Gluten Free Tampa Vacation That's Fun, Safe and Stress Free -->

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1. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Food allergies. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/food-allergies#:~:text=Congress%20passed%20the%20Food%20Allergen,peanuts%2C%20wheat%2C%20and%20soybeans.