Being Gluten-Free Inclusive

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Delicious, Easy and In-Demand

What More Reason Do You Need to Offer Gluten-Free Options?

As more Americans are prescribed a gluten-free diet for their medical conditions, the demand for glutenfree menus and products is growing.

By Whitney Ehret

Food is central to your customers’ lives; it defines them and where they come from.

But for the millions of American diners who require a gluten-free diet, food has long been a source of isolation, loneliness and fear. As a restaurant operator, you have the opportunity to help your customers avoid these frustrations.

The gluten-free diet has quickly become one of the fastest growing nutritional movements in America, and you could be ignoring a large segment of the dining public if you neglect to offer menu items tailored to the gluten-free crowd.

Celiac Disease. What’s that?

If you’ve never heard of celiac disease, you’re not alone. Of the three million Americans living with the genetic autoimmune disorder, only 120,000 have been formally diagnosed.

Celiac disease affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients in the small intestine, and is triggered by an autoimmune response to gluten. When someone with celiac ingests gluten, the body attacks itself, putting them at risk of developing complications such as other autoimmune disorders, neurological conditions and even cancer.

Despite being the most common autoimmune disorder in the United States, celiac disease has gone largely undiagnosed because the symptoms often mimic other conditions, such as Chron’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.

Snoqualmie native Nancy Baker suffered for more than 10 years with unexplained digestive symptoms, despite visiting countless physicians. “I hated hearing, ‘We have never seen this before’ or ‘This is very rare,’” said Baker.

Baker’s condition became critical during her pregnancy. “I lost 15 pounds in the first trimester and was hospitalized three times. Doctors told me to go home and eat saltine crackers, ramen noodles and dry toast! In hindsight, I was poisoning myself.”

Both Baker and her son Grant (now 10) have been formally diagnosed with celiac disease. Both are happy and healthy, thanks to a gluten-free diet. Now Baker is the Director of Education for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA).

The Gluten-Free Industry

The population with celiac disease is only a small portion of Americans living with medical conditions that respond positively to a gluten-free diet. 10 million people have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity.

Due to the growing number of Americans looking for gluten-free options, (nearly 15 to 25 percent of all consumers, estimates U.S. News and World Report) those entering the gluten-free market have enjoyed tremendous success and profits.

According to a 2008 Packaged Facts Report, the gluten-free market continues to experience doubledigit growth (more than 20 percent), in spite of the current economic recession. The industry is expected to reach $2.6 billion by 2012.

Leading industry organizations, such as the National Restaurant Association, have also highlighted the enormous potential in this market and even named ‘gluten-free’ a top food trend for 2009.

While many continue to label ‘gluten-free’ as a market trend, the diet often gets misrepresented as a fad. Despite the current popularity surrounding “gluten-free,” the core population of this consumer market is comprised of those who require the gluten-free diet out of medical necessity and must adhere to the diet for life.

Gluten-free consumers also dictate the food and dining practices of their friends and families. In the instance of the Baker family, those restaurants that can safely serve two gluten-free meals also enjoy the patronage of three additional non-gluten-free diners.

What Does it Mean to be Gluten-Free?

Gluten is a protein particle found in all forms of wheat, barley and rye. Those on a gluten-free diet simply have to avoid eating any foods containing gluten. Easier said than done.

Not only must those on a gluten-free diet avoid all bread, bagels, cookies, pizza, beer, crackers and cake made with wheat flour, but many other staple products, as well. Gluten is also found in wheat additives, the most common additive ingredient used in American food products, causing most soups, sauces, seasoning mixes, marinades and salad dressings to be off limits.

Catering to the Gluten-Free Consumer.

While the gluten-free diet may seem restrictive and difficult, becoming a destination for gluten-free diners is not. Restaurants across the country are appealing to gluten-free consumers, and doing so safely, successfully and EASILY.

Popular national chains such as PF Chang’s and Uno Chicago Grill now offer gluten-free menus. At Maggiano’s Little Italy, customers can select from a menu listing of available wheat-free pastas and gluten-free sauces.

For those looking to appeal to gluten-free diners, developing separate offerings or an entirely new menu isn’t required. There are many delicious alternatives that can be used to make popular menu items glutenfree.

Wheat-free flours such as rice flour, potato flour, cornstarch or tapioca flour can replace gluten as thickeners or in sauces and rues. Use potatoes, polenta or exotic and nutritious grains like quinoa as side dish options for gluten-free dishes.

“By changing a few simple ingredients, I am now able to make the majority of my recipes gluten-free without compromising the excellent quality of our food,” said Kay Conley, a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef who owns and operates Savory Moment (www.SavoryMoment.com), a chef-prepared packaged meal service out of Redmond, Wash.

Kay launched a gluten-free menu earlier this year at the request of several clients and even family members!

“I have made it my goal to raise the bar on gluten-free foods to the point where my customers (and family) cannot tell the difference, making the transition to a gluten-free diet easy and delicious,” said Conley.

Cross Contamination Caution

The challenge for any restaurant operating in a shared kitchen is avoiding cross contamination. Gluten is a particle that cannot be removed by heat or conventional soap and water cleaning. Particles lingering in the air or on someone’s hands can make their way onto a gluten-free plate and potentially harm the customer.

“If you can prevent food poisoning and nut allergen contamination, you can prevent gluten cross contamination — even in a dual kitchen,” says Nancy Baker, who created NFCA’s Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) program. GREAT educates restaurant staff on the gluten-free diet and ways to prevent cross contamination.

The GREAT program looks at potential hazards such as sharing condiments, utensils, grill, oven, toaster space and even boiling water. It provides simple strategies and organizational tactics that can prevent cross contamination. GREAT Training is available online through the NFCA website.

Kay Conley enrolled her own kitchen in the program prior to launching her gluten-free menu.

“GREAT provided me with an easy and very affordable way to quickly train my staff and feel confident knowing we can provide safe gluten-free foods to our new customers,” said Conley.

Improving Bottom Lines and Lives!

For many who have ventured into the gluten-free marketplace, the outpouring of support and gratitude from their customers has been overwhelming.

Susanne Park, owner of Sweet Cakes Bakery in Kirkland, says the joy her gluten-free desserts bring to others is deeply satisfying.

“Seeing a 5-year-old’s face light up and smile when he was able to pick from many choices in our dessert case… brought tears to my eyes,” Park said. “He had never been able to do that before.”

Whitney Ehret is director of communications for The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Rev. 12/13/14

 


This article is an excerpt from the Handbook for Excellent Restaurant Operations (HERO), published by the Washington Hospitality Association.  Want a hard copy of the whole manual?  It’s one of the many benefits of becoming a member!  Find out more about joining the Washington Hospitality Association here.

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