Gluten free moving into the mainstream

By Cari Price, Corporate Development Chef, Food IQ

Recently, eating gluten-free has grown significantly in awareness and practice in the United States. Ten years ago most of us didn't know what the diet encompassed let alone name the genetic digestive disorder behind it — celiac disease. Although awareness has grown rather quickly, the occurrence of American's with celiac disease has only doubled every 15 years since 1974, according to a recent USA Today article.

So why have sales of gluten-free products increased 16 percent in 2010 alone, based on Nielsen Company data? And why does gluten-free rank the No. 1 nutritional claim related to specialized diets on restaurant menus tracked by Mintel Menu Insights?

Awareness of gluten-free is obvious when you consider the expansion in availability and significant sales growth of gluten-free products. And gluten-free menu claims have grown a whopping 114 percent over the last three years. This leads us to believe that consumers beyond those diagnosed with celiac disease are eating gluten-free.

When it comes to menu development around specialty diets such as gluten-free, our industry's biggest concern is longevity. Is this diet just another fad or is it a growing consumer need? There is a lot of discovery to be done surrounding consumer expectations as well as the best replacements for gluten-containing ingredients, and these processes can be expensive. Additionally, employee education and training is key to preventing cross-contamination with gluten, which is of the utmost importance when dealing with food allergies. Is the gluten-free diet just a "flash in the pan" like the low-carb diet and countless others that have surfaced in recent years? Or does it have sustainability in America?

Medical experts estimate that only 1 percent of Americans have been diagnosed through blood testing and intestinal biopsy. However, it's important to note that as many as 10 percent have a related and less diagnosable condition known as non-celiac gluten intolerance (NCGI), commonly referred to as gluten sensitivity, only diagnosed by default for those who don't have celiac disease but feel better on a gluten-free diet. Researchers are currently working on the development of blood tests and definition for gluten sensitivity to diagnose these patients, but for now doctors are recommending they see a registered dietician and begin to follow a gluten-free diet to determine their tolerance for gluten.

Essentially a larger, less understood group of consumers with gluten sensitivity are now experimenting with gluten-free foods. If you want to leverage this immediate consumer demand but take a less expensive approach, begin by labeling your existing menu items, such as salads, protein entrees and soups, as gluten-free. This is an approach many chains are taking. In fact Wendy's spokesman, Denny Lynch, made a statement recently in the Los Angeles Times about this approach, "We develop products for the mass audience. We don't have the luxury of being able to create specific, targeted products to one group."

Subway, the world's largest multi-unit chain restaurant, has launched new gluten-free products specifically for this growing group of consumers. They are currently testing a new gluten-free sandwich roll and brownie, which includes specially packaged single-use knives, designated procedures, work stations, and training to address cross-contamination. Subway is one example of a large category of restaurants that rely heavily on gluten-containing products such as pizza, pasta, burgers and sandwiches. This type of restaurant will likely follow this more expensive route for menu development and create new gluten-free products and procedures.

If you are not addressing gluten cross-contamination issues back-of-house, a clearly stated disclaimer is a must. Understand that consumers with celiac disease can't ingest even a small amount of gluten without initiating decreased absorption in the intestine, ultimately causing pain or illness. Even the failure to change ones gloves could cause a reaction when preparing food for someone with this disease.

We all have a lot to learn about the spectrum of gluten intolerance and sensitivity, but since both can be managed through diet alone, our industry as a whole has embraced the gluten-free way of eating. Our responsibility to consumers is to at least make a small investment in arming your team with knowledge about gluten-free food, what contains gluten and what doesn't and how to prevent cross-contamination.

Read more about health and nutrition.

Cari Price is Corporate Development Chef at Food IQ. Her background in nutrition and experience in food marketing and the restaurant industry give her clients a unique advantage in the development of strategically relevant menu ideas.

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