From a mainstream restaurant industry coverage perspective, there were very few mentions of the gluten-free diet prior to 2011. Not many chains were willing, at that time, to jump the hurdles associated with gluten-free fare, namely availability, affordability, taste and safety.
Now, however, there is a different story to write. The staggering growth of gluten-free has been well documented — 275 percent increase in menu mentions from 2009-2012. Gluten-free food sales are now estimated to be more than $4.2 billion.
And, according to Alice Bast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, three out of four of those hurdles have been cleared.
"Everything in this industry starts with the product and we finally have that piece solved. The taste/flavor profile of gluten-free has finally been figured out. Availability and affordability were already solved," she said. "Now we're onto safety."
Of course, safety requires significant training from a management level down. In an industry with high turnover levels, that becomes somewhat tricky.
The gluten-free diet is a necessity for an estimated 21 million Americans, including those who suffer from celiac disease (about 1 percent of the population) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by consuming the gluten protein, which is ubiquitously found in wheat, barley and rye.
Exposure or cross-contamination will make celiacs very sick. But Bast is optimistic that the training piece will also fall into place sooner than later. The NFCA, for example, along with other organizations such as MenuTrinfo, already provide comprehensive and ongoing training and support to maintain safety measures.
"We see it as an opportunity. It's going to take a little bit of time, but if (operators) can do anti-salmonella training, they can do gluten-free training," she said. "Thirty percent of diners are at least trying gluten-free. Brands need to make sure they're prioritizing that training and consistency."
MenuTrinfo founder Betsy Craig added that most brands are ready for the training and certification process.
"People now want to how to do this and how to do it right. Restaurants now understand that their reputation is at stake," she said.
The flavor profile
Bast said the first hurdle in mainstreaming the gluten-free dieg was availability, followed by affordability.
The taste component was figured out most recently.
"The taste profile was No. 1. It was critical that we got the chef community to enjoy cooking gluten-free," she said.
Mike Vorhees, from R.W. Bakery Co., agreed that gluten-free products' flavor is better than it used to be and more options are being developed accordingly. His company came out with gluten-free sliced bread last year and introduced snacks this year, such as brownies, muffins and cookies. Those sweets are made with tapioca flour in lieu of regular flour.
"We wanted to develop something more than just the bread carriers," Vorhees said. "People with celiac shouldn't be punished for eating."
Check out Bast discussing the state of the gluten-free industry.
Read more about food safety.
Photo provided by Whatsername?
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.