The FDA's official definition of "gluten-free," first released in August, was a turning point for the fast-growing diet. That's when it went from a fad to a foodservice industry trend, according to Betsy Craig, founder/CEO of MenuTrinfo LLC and Kitchens with Confidence LLC.
"For decades, the FDA has had definitions for sodium and heart-healthy, etc. There are 17 different designations based on nutritional content. Adding gluten-free as the 18th shows how important it is now to make sure if you're serving something — and making money on something — gluten-free, that it's verified all the way down to the sub-particles," she said. "People have been waiting a long time for that designation."
Craig reflected on the gluten-free industry — where it's been and where it's going — for PizzaMarketplace.com, just ahead of May, which is Celiac Awareness Month.
PizzaMarketplace: Gluten-free seemed to be making more headlines a couple of years ago. Are you seeing the trend fade at all?
Craig:No. I am seeing restaurant operators who are still desperate to take what they already have in their kitchen and make it a win for people with dietary needs. Our industry is still very much embracing gluten-free and whether they want to or not, they're having to drink the Kool-Aid because it's not going anywhere. The FDA's definition was an indication of that.
PizzaMarketplace: How, exactly, does the FDA's designation influence the restaurant industry?
Craig: It was huge for the manufacturing world and that, by extension, ripples into the restaurant industry. The FDA specifically talked agout restaurants, catering and buffets and how they have to comply. And it says you can't play around with 'gluten-free' with all of these cutesy names like 'gluten-friendly' or '99 percent gluten-free.' It has to be verified or it becomes dangerous.
PizzaMarketplace: How much of the industry's growth is from fad dieters versus those with celiac disease?
Craig:I will say the fad gluten-free diet is waning because people are discovering that it is a hard diet to follow.
But according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, about 83 percent of Americans who have celiac disease are still not diagnosed. So where the trend is picking up is because more people are being diagnosed, and even those who aren't are still using it because they realize the physical and medical benefits of the diet.
PizzaMarketplace: Does the 'fading fad' have implications for adoption at restaurants?
Craig:It is going from 2 out of every 10 diners to 1.5 out of 10 diners. So even when the fad wanes, it's still a big population. Plus, you can't discount all of the allergies that can be managed through a gluten-free diet, like wheat. If one person out of every 10 is on a special diet, then gluten-free is the biggest bang for your buck because you're able to control other allergies and you have the safety protocol in place.
PizzaMarketplace: How do you convince operators of an ROI if it's one customer out of 10 choosing these offerings?
Craig: It's a win/win situation — for restaurants and customers. The restaurant is offering more choices and the diners are choosing the restaurants that offer more choices. There's always a veto customer who will say 'Hey, I can't eat there.' But mostly when people come to us, they understand the benefits and those benefits are largely positive word of mouth.
We also see about an 8-percent rise in sales in the first few months of offering a gluten-free menu. That's the spike, but the ongoing number after it settles is 3 to 4 percent. Special needs diners, choice diners, they're going to continue driving revenue.
PizzaMarketplace: Mintel Menu Insights recently reported that there's been a 200-percent increase in gluten-free menu instances since 2010. Does this staggering growth reflect what you're seeing?
Craig:Yes. I was recently at an event in which Disney said there has been a doubling of special dietary requests from 2009-2012. In 2009, they had just over 300,000 requests. In 2012, they had over 600,000 requests. Those are hard numbers and they're expecting that to continue. I wouldn't be surprised if Disney doubled again in the next three years.
PizzaMarketplace.com: With the 'fad' fading, what will drive that growth?
Craig:More people are being diagnosed with celiac or food allergies. Food allergies are up 50 percent since 1997. The fad may be fading but people with medical needs are stepping in and screaming louder than ever. One of my favorite quotes is that 'food is health care; medicine is sick care.' We're seeing people more than ever demanding the right food to take care of their health.
Also, we have so much more choice than ever before and even if someone doesn't need the diet, they may want a gluten-free meal every now and then.
PizzaMarketplace: How would you describe the current state of the gluten-free industry?
Craig: More places are figuring out that they can have wonderful offerings, not just the pre-packaged, pre-baked pizza. We'll see more places, like Mellow Mushroom, offering the full-page gluten-free menus. The prices are getting more mainstream because more people are buying it. And we're getting more sophisticated with flavor profiles. It can be simple.
I'd say we're not only still in the honeymoon phase, we're in the first year of the honeymoon phase. We're still heavily in love with gluten-free.
PizzaMarketplace: Aside from sustained growth, how would you describe the immediate future of the gluten-free industry?
Craig:We're so far behind with this. In Italy, gluten-free products are sold in pharmacies. People consider it medicine. Every big chain is looking to see how they can accomodate this and if not, why, and if so, when.
Photo provided by Wikimedia.
/ 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.