Gluten-free menu items: Fad or Here to Stay?

Mar 16 2014

Last August 5, 2013, the FDA released the latest definition of “gluten-free” food, which requires voluntarily-labelled gluten-free food items to have no more than 20 parts per million of gluten in any given dish. This uniform standard for the term is a step towards assuring concerned customers about the safe consumption of food items that are labelled gluten-free. It also makes it easier for chefs and kitchen staff to determine whether they have the resources and the know-how to produce gluten-free dishes based on the definition provided.

Gluten, a protein contained in a minute speck of grain, is usually found in flour products. It can also be present in ingredients such as malt, barley, rye or malt vinegar. The presence of gluten may result in allergic reactions, even life-threatening ones (especially for customers with celiac disease). As such, the FDA stands to levy heavy fines and sanctions to establishments that fail to meet the definition and can consider them guilty of mislabelling their products.

Creating Safe Gluten-Free Food

Offering gluten-free restaurant dishes requires commitment. Even with the use of the right ingredients, it may still be likely that some amount of gluten can be present due to cross-contamination. This can happen through the use of cookware, utensils, cooking oil, the water used to cook pasta or in the prep tables. There are also some instances where a supposedly gluten-free dish is contaminated with gluten present in the air, especially from flour products.

To minimize these dangers, restaurants should train staff in the prevention of cross-contamination. This also means instituting procedures that separate the preparation area of gluten-free food as well as using separate kitchenware. The kitchen staff should also look closely at recipes to see whether there are hidden sources of gluten. Hidden sources may be found in marinades, the contents of the restaurant’s condiment stand or dairy products.

An Increasing Market

The gluten-free market is an attractive growing market. Based on FDA statistics, there is an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million people in the country with celiac disease. When you include Americans that are gluten intolerant, this translates to roughly 10% of the market. This can even increase to up to 15% if one includes loved ones and friends of those who are going gluten-free because of other health reasons.

Gluten-free food is gaining popularity as a health food. Aside from those with celiac disease, those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, anemia, autism and thyroid disease can also benefit from eating gluten-free food. Advocates also claim that a gluten-free diet can result in better cholesterol and energy levels as well as improved digestive health. What is more, it is also said to be good for those who want to lose weight.

Based on research by Mintel, that means an astounding $7 billion worth of gluten-free products, a number that may encourage more restaurants to add gluten-free options to their menu. In fact, GrubHub, a digital food ordering service, reports that since April 2012, there has been a rise in gluten-free takeout orders by as much as 60%.

With the whopping size and growth possibility of the gluten-free market, gluten-free food items are more than a fad. It falls on the restaurants and catering services to determine whether it is a bandwagon worth hitching their business to. Food establishments that do decide to commit to gluten-product offerings and that follow through with their commitment through establishing best kitchen and service processes may find themselves rewarded with a loyal following of gluten-free enthusiasts.