While we continue to wait for final regulations on menu labeling from the federal Food and Drug Administration, I thought I'd look around to see what some of the bigger restaurant chains are already doing to let diners know what's on their plate.
The FDA regs will cover basic nutrition information. I went in search of information and disclaimers about common food allergens and that hot-button ingredient, gluten.
The good news is that some of the national chains are starting to get it. I've written about Chuck E. Cheese's experiment with factory-sealed gluten-free pizza before. Take a look at the chain's allergy information posted on its website and you'll see why the mouse would want to do something.
The Chuck E. Cheese page shows one of the biggest problems in getting people to understand food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. The first question under the heading Food Allergies is "Do your pizzas contain trans fats?" Trans fat may be something you don't want to eat, but it's not an allergen. Ditto with meat fillers, animal fats, animal-derived enzymes, and calcium chloride, all mixed in with soy and wheat and milk. And you have to click on your specific Chuck E. restaurant to find out what's in specific menu items.
But with the growing prevalence of real food allergies in the chain's target market — kids who want to be kids — it's a smart business move in my opinion to begin to offer safer items.
I've also written about Domino's business move to offer a pizza with a "gluten-free" crust. Now that the flour dust has settled, and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness has killed its confusing Amber designation, the pizza chain still posts the disclaimer that what it really means is that it is selling a trendy, fad-diet, not-so-much gluten crust, not a pie suitable for celiacs or anyone avoiding gluten for medical reasons. Fair enough.
Here are some restaurants that seem to be getting the right way to communicate about food allergies and gluten-free options:
Godfather's Pizza offers not just gluten-free crust but completely G-F pies. They are topped off-site at a CSA-approved facility and individually wrapped before they are delivered to the stores. Not all locations sell the G-F pizza, but those that do also let you take the wrapped pie home to your own oven.
Some chains, while they don't necessarily go the extra mile to create a Gluten-free or allergen-free dining experience, do let you know what's in their dishes in a clear, concise manner so diners can make informed choices.
For example, BJ's Brewhouse and Boston's Gourmet Pizza provide their nutritional and allergy information in simple-to-read charts. Allergic to shellfish? Look down the column to see what not to order.
Ruby Tuesday actually organizes its menu selections by allergen. Patrons with an egg allergy, say, can go to that section and see they can order just about anything, if they stay away from the garlic cheese biscuits.
The Outback Steakhouse offers diners guidance on how to customize their meals to make them gluten-free. The chain will also serve its burgers naked if you want to BYOB (bring your own buns) – just don't send your bread to the kitchen.
So, if national chains are going to get creative to respond to market demand for more detailed menu information in the absence of federal regulations, maybe it will be worth the wait.
Do you have a good example of a menu or website that gives the straight dope on allergens and gluten? Send me a link at firstname.lastname@example.org I would love to see it!
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.