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The future of gluten-free: Restaurants still weighing whether to jump on the bandwagon

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

The gluten-free market continues to grow as food companies and restaurants expand their offerings to cater to consumers’ appetite  for gluten-free foods. Gluten-free dishes appeared on 9.4% of menus in 2013, compared with 1.8% in 2009, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends Database. But even as the segment grows and “gluten-free” continues to be a buzzword among consumers and foodservice professionals, gluten-free dishes still account for less than 1% of menu items across all categories.

“While the penetration is growing, generally speaking a lot of these operators tend to have just one or two gluten-free items on the menu, versus an extensive array,” said Maeve Webster, senior director of Datassential. Oftentimes, those one or two items won’t be the only gluten-free choices available, but rather the only ones that the restaurant has chosen to call out on their menu. “There are definitely some pluses and minuses to operators identifying things as gluten-free,” Webster said. “I think gluten-free is where healthy items were 10 years ago. They’ve made great strides … but I think a lot of consumers are very wary of what gluten-free items are going to be like, so …  even if an item that’s been on the menu forever and a day is inherently gluten-free I think many operators right now are hesitant to identify it as gluten-free.”

Webster said consumers may steer-clear of items marked “gluten-free” because of a previous bad experience with gluten-free food, such as bad flavor or mouthfeel. Gluten-free is in the second stage of Datassential’s four-stage Menu Adoption Cycle, which means it is beginning to be adopted in independent casual dining restaurants as well as some independent quickserve and fast casual eateries after trickling down from fine dining establishments and ethnic independent operations. Gluten-free items are most commonly found on casual dining menus, with 12.1% of casual restaurants listing at least one gluten-free item on their menu in 2013.

“I think other operators are trying to figure out whether or not it necessarily is something they want to get involved in. You know, at the end of the day, less than 10% of the population in one form or another — either they have to or they want to — participate in a gluten-free diet, so that means 90% are not. So I think a lot of these operators are trying to decide whether it really is worth the money and the resources to get involved in the category,” Webster said.

Once category that offers a fairly low barrier to entry into the gluten-free market is pizza. Of the restaurants that had at least one gluten-free item on their menu in 2013, 5.2% offered a gluten-free pizza. Webster said dough manufacturers have been quick to jump on the gluten-free trend. Gluten-free dough formulations are relatively simple to make, and pizza restaurants often stock more than one type of dough, since customization is one of the driving factors for today’s pizza concepts.

“Pizza is really hot and a lot of the players who are entering the market and beginning to make a big impact in that category are all focused on offering at least one gluten-free crust option,” Webster said, adding that, “because consumers have demonstrated a willingness to experiment quite a bit in the pizza category, I think it’s easy to offer some unique crust options beyond the traditional options.”

Consumers crave customization, but preparing made-to-order pies for customers with a variety of dietary needs opens restaurants up to risk of cross-contamination, especially in a pizza parlor where airborne flour and scattered toppings are common. Pre-formed crusts may offer some protection against cross-contamination, but many restaurants are still not equipped with the training and facilities it takes to offer truly gluten-free fare, said Alice Bast, president and CEO of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

“The foodservice sector continues to be highly problematic for those with celiac disease. NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens program strives to provide high-quality training and support for restaurants, colleges and universities and other foodservice operators, but awareness about the food safety elements of the gluten-free diet is still a challenge,” Bast said.

Consumers may choose to adopt a gluten-diet for a multitude of perceived health benefits, from weight loss to improving symptoms of depression, but only about 1% of the American population suffers from celiac disease, and an estimated 83% of those cases are undiagnosed, according to the NFCA.

For those with celiac disease or other gluten-sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is essential, but “there are no proven health benefits to the gluten-free diet for those who do not have a medical necessity,” Bast said.

In fact, many food items that include a “gluten-free” call-out are not consumed by people who have celiac disease or another gluten sensitivity. “If you’re doing [gluten-free] from a place of holistic health, you’re not going to eat gluten-free pizza, you’re not going to eat gluten-free bread,” said Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights for the Hartman Group.

Abbott said the foodservice operators who are hesitant to jump into gluten-free are smart, and “when a foodservice operator really understands food culture … they are actually looking to authentic food culture, food cuisines around the world that are authentically gluten-free, for the most part.” These foods, such as Indian papadums or Veitnamese rice paper rolls, are naturally free from gluten, rather than being just a gluten-free formulation of a popular food.

However, gluten-free formulations of American diet staples continue to be popular, and chefs and food manufacturers are continually looking for ways to make healthier, better-tasting gluten-free food. Applying popular cooking methods to gluten-free cuisine could yield appealing new options that don’t differ much in flavor or texture from their original counterparts. Fried and fermented foods both hold promise for gluten-free menus, Webster said. “Largely the crust on a chicken doesn’t need to be doughy, so gluten-free might end up working out very well on some of those fried options that up until now had not been gluten-free and have always been quite popular,” she said.