Early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings are filled with children with a variety of allergies, dietary requirements and cultural or religious dietary considerations. One common question which often arises in relation to children who avoid gluten in their diet is “is it safe to play with playdough?”
A recent study conducted by researchers from the Children’s National Hospital, in Washington, DC found that common classroom activities, such as playing with playdough, or working with uncooked pasta have “little to no potential” to cause harmful gluten exposure to children living with celiac disease.
For those children living with celiac disease, eating gluten-containing foods provokes an immune response that can damage the intestinal lining. Due to concerns about gluten exposure, educators may restrict children’s participation in some activities using gluten-containing materials.
Celiac disease may affect about one per cent of the world population and is managed by a gluten-free diet, but strict avoidance can be difficult in a “gluten-filled world.” As such, many parents of children living with celiac disease can feel anxious about contact with gluten while attending ECEC.
Published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition (JPGN), the study found that other activities, such as working with papier-mâché or participating in baking projects using wheat flour, have higher potential for gluten cross-contact.
One of the researchers, Vanessa Maltin Weisbrod, BA, CA, said that the research was of particular interest on a personal level, as a parent of a child with celiac disease. “Our study provides reassurance that some of these activities pose a low risk of gluten exposure, and that simple cleaning steps can further reduce the risk,” Ms Weisbrod said.
To carry out the study, researchers designed an experiment to determine the true risk of gluten exposure from common classroom activities. Thirty healthy children (average age eight years) handled gluten-containing materials: playing with playdough, doing a papier-mâché art project, playing with dried or cooked spaghetti in a sensory table, or baking cookies using wheat-based flour. After each activity, gluten transfer from the children’s hands and table surfaces was measured.
The concern was not that gluten would be absorbed through the hands – gluten protein is too large to be absorbed through the skin. Rather, the study assessed the possible risk of “cross contact” with gluten transferred from hands or surfaces to foods that the children may eat.
The results showed “a very low or negligible risk” of gluten exposure after handling playdough or dried pasta. “For years it has been assumed that children with celiac disease shouldn’t play with playdough, for example, because it has a high risk of gluten cross-contact,” Ms Weisbrod said. “Our study provides quantifiable evidence that it doesn’t.”
In contrast, significant amounts of gluten transfer – more than 20 parts per million – were found after the children handled papier-mâché, cooked pasta, and cookie dough.
“We found that school supplies that are dry had very low gluten transfers while materials that were wet and sticky tended to cling to the hands of children and table surfaces,” Ms Weisbrod added.
Even after the children handled wet or sticky materials, handwashing or cleaning the table surfaces eliminated gluten transfer. Washing with soap and water was “consistently the most effective method.”
While activities using wet materials and wheat flour do pose a risk of gluten transfer, the risks associated with other materials such as playdough and dry pasta “may have been historically overestimated,” the researchers wrote. “Children with celiac may be able to use these materials safely in the classroom environment, provided that the materials themselves are not consumed.”
Ms Weisbrod and coauthors discuss strategies that educators may use to reduce the risk of gluten transfer during these activities – including some simple alternatives to gluten-containing materials.