Gluten-free is not so free for restaurants

March 29, 2011 | by Betsy Craig

In the beginning of March, I had the pleasure of attending a hospitality trade show for both hotels and restaurants in Ocean City, Maryland. It was an outstanding show on many levels. I had been invited to present tips and ideas for menu nutrition labeling, allergen management and gluten awareness in any type of foodservice establishment.

Ground-breaking, earth-shattering topics, I think not, but all of these are hot topics in the minds of the dining public. More and more, people are deciding where to dine based on specific nutritional needs and desire. They are voting with their wallets and restaurants everywhere are trying to keep up with the latest trends and needs.

One revelation was over-the-top exciting: the number of new products coming onto the market that are in fact gluten-free. While at this show I saw good old Maryland Crab Cakes that have a gluten-free seal of approval and reports from people in the know say they were outstanding. Another product that really blew my mind was a gluten-free rice chip  from my all-time personal favorite potato chip maker. I brought a bag back to Colorado for the office to share and it was yummy!

During my presentation, I listed some facts behind Celiac Disease. Few people realize that Celiac Disease is an auto immune disease which has a profound impact on those that ingest gluten in their food. The small intestine of someone with celiac disease reacts adversely to gluten, severely restricting their ability to digest and absorb any nutrients.   They suffer from symptoms ranging from mild discomfort and lethargy to pain and malnutrition.

Other individuals may have various ranges of gluten or wheat intolerances, where the amount required inducing a reaction can vary wildly. Remember these intolerances are more like an allergy, whereas Celiac Disease is NOT a food allergy, or wheat sensitivity. People who have been diagnosed with this disease may take offense if you naively suggest it to be an allergy. They will appreciate a sympathetic ear, but probably have plenty of professional medical advice.

Bottom line: if a patron says they have Celiac Disease, please take them at their word. Even a trace amount or cross-contact of gluten can make them sick. This vocal minority will remember their treatment at your restaurant, and will sing praises of your concern as eagerly as they would sing scorn of your indifference.

A member of my audience asked, “How do I know what has gluten in it, what names should I look for on the label?”   That innocent query belies the subtle difficulty in the proper labeling of gluten-free foods. In particular, the lack of the phrase "contains gluten" should not be taken as a guarantee it's gluten-free.

Yes, you can look for the word “gluten” in ingredients, but you must also look for many other words that indicate even trace amounts of gluten. Gluten is everywhere and it will take a good effort to create a safe menu offering.

Many of you have already done this and I say "A tip of the labeling hat to you!" Make sure it stays current; check often with your supplier of the ingredients used on those plate make ups. My number one suggestion is to obtain experienced, professional nutritional help.

Having a dietitian or nutritionist assist in the creation of menu options is a top shelf solution to providing a truly gluten-free menu. There are many resources to assist an owner, chef, or operator to make this a win-win situation for all.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Food & Beverage , Operations Management , Trends / Statistics

Betsy Craig / Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo, LLC a menu nutritional labeling Company. Her commitment to the betterment of the food industry and her desire to affect the dining public are the driving forces behind her new company Kitchens with Confidence, LLC.
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