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More Chefs, Operators Weigh Gluten-Free Menu Options

Sysco Shape February 2014

For years, chefs and restaurateurs gave little or no thought to catering to customers who have celiac disease or gluten-related disorders. Many, in fact, would have to admit they didn't know exactly what that even entailed.

But no longer. The decision to offer gluten-free alternatives on menus has taken on a growing importance as societal concerns about health and wellness continue to gain traction.

Foodservice professionals have come to recognize those directional shifts, too. In its annual What's Hot culinary forecast — which polled nearly 1,300 chefs — the National Restaurant Association found that interest in offering gluten-free menu items ranked No. 5 among the Top 20 Trends of 2014. “Today's consumers are more interested than ever in what they eat and where their food comes from, and that is reflected in our menu trends research,” wrote Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA's research and knowledge group.

Clearly, many in the industry now maintain that offering gluten-free options constitutes a growing restaurant trend that is likely to gain in stature in the coming years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration further underscored gluten's importance last year when it published regulations and uniform standards governing the use of the term “gluten-free” on packaged goods and restaurant menus. The FDA now requires operators that employ the term as menu descriptors to adhere to the food-labeling definition by Aug. 5, 2014.

According to the FDA's new regulations, menu items voluntarily labeled as being “gluten-free” or containing such terms as “no gluten,” “free of gluten” or “without gluten,” must contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Gluten is a protein contained in wheat, barley, rye and related grains that negatively affects individuals who have celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that is estimated to affect between 1.5 million and 3 million people in the US.

“It's estimated that approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population actually has celiac disease, but 83 percent [of that universe] don't know it,” says dietitian Tricia Thompson, owner and founder of Gluten Free Watchdog, LLC, a Manchester, Mass.-based consulting firm that tests for gluten contamination. “Many people haven't been diagnosed with it.”

Thompson calls the new federal rules “thorough” and “accurate,” adding, “They should be printed out and taken to every restaurant.”

She says it's “a very good thing for people with celiac disease that restaurants want to offer gluten-free options. But knowledge is the key. Restaurants must educate themselves on the gluten-free rule. Education has to take place both in the front- and back-of-the-house.”

She cautions that making assumptions about which ingredients contain gluten is not enough. Operators must be careful about reading labels, noting that wheat, barley or rye can appear as “stealth ingredients” in some items. For instance, malt vinegar contains barley and soy sauce contains wheat, she points out.

At the same time, it's critical that chefs and restaurateurs take strict steps to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen. “They must ensure that whatever items they claim to be gluten-free do not come in contact with [anything containing] wheat, barley or rye.”

For example, Thompson explains, the kitchen can't store rice flour next to wheat flour. “Flour goes everywhere,” she says. “You need to keep those things separated.”

Nevertheless, an increasing number of restaurateurs and chefs are trying to address the gluten-free issue. Experts agree, though, that offering gluten-free alternatives at full-service operations demands a high level of commitment on the part of the restaurant.

Operators that choose to offer gluten-free alternatives must utilize designated fryers and grills for gluten-free preparations only, as well special pans for sauteing gluten-free items. In addition, cutting boards and tools such as spatulas need to be clearly color-coded or designated that they are to be used solely for gluten-free selections.

There is a definite market for gluten-free selections. A number of operators estimate that gluten-free items account for 10 percent to 15 percent of sales — although that doesn't mean all patrons who order those dishes have celiac disease. Some have gluten-related disorders while many others are just on gluten-free diets by choice.

However, while gluten-free selections are appearing on more restaurant menus, some experts say that the federal government's new, more rigorous rules governing the use of the term could slow that trend. “While it's true that we've been seeing [gluten-free] on more menus, we may start seeing less of it now that the FDA says restaurants have to follow a legal definition,” says Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association. “It's a pretty tight definition, and I think some restaurants will be dissuaded.

“Before, it was more loosey, goosey to claim gluten-free,” she says. “But those days are gone.”

New rules notwithstanding, experts agree that the groundswell among consumers asking for more gluten-free options is bound to convince many restaurateurs that, while challenging, the decision to address the gluten-free issue by offering menu options is worth pursuing.


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