Is Adding Gluten-Free Items to Your Menu is a Must?

Who knew that one of the biggest menu trends would be gluten-free dishes and ingredients?  It’s true:  With the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimating that nearly 21 million Americans have Celiac Disease or some form of sensitivity to gluten (translating into an estimated $6.2 billion product industry last year alone), gluten-free items and offerings are a strategic topic for restaurant menu development that must be discussed.

Those who suffer from Celiac Disease, a digestive disease where the consumption of gluten (wheat, barley and rye to name a few) is damaging to the small intestine, or are sensitive to gluten, are part of one of the fastest growing nutritional groups in the country.  In fact according to Technomic, a food industry consulting and research firm, gluten-free menu selections grew 61% between 2010-2011.

It’s certainly an important issue and a major food industry topic.  The most important aspect is to understand the difference between Celiac Disease and a gluten intolerance.  Unless your restaurant can guarantee there is no gluten in the air and no cross use of equipment used to cook items that include gluten, then you would be taking a huge risk in making a gluten-free claim.  However if you clarify that the direct ingredients in an item are all gluten-free, you can still take the important step of satisfying guests with a gluten intolerance.  As with any allergy or sensitivity, the first step is to be educated – don’t allow staff to make superficial decisions and rush into this trend without fully understanding the guest’s actual health needs combined with the realities of your restaurants limitations.

So what does this mean for you? If you can’t create or guarantee a gluten-free menu, certainly you can explore offering items that are “safe” for those with gluten intolerances.

To get you started, look to these restaurants for inspiration:

The Melting Pot: With 140 interactive fondue restaurants throughout the US, The Melting Pot has incorporated gluten-free options into each of their four courses (cheese fondue, salad, entrée and dessert) to accommodate guests with sensitivities.

P.F. Chang’s: With 25 gluten-free dishes already available on their Asian-inspired menu, they recently added seven more dishes, including: Gluten-Free Caramel Mango Chicken and Gluten-Free Asian Tomato-Cucumber Salad.

And not just for foodies, Anheuser-Busch recently launched Michelob Ultra Light Cider, which is gluten-free. But it all began in 2006 with the company’s Redbridge beer, which was recognized as the first nationally available gluten-free beer.

Check back soon for a post on “Gluten-free Goodies” featuring gluten-free ingredients, suggestions and more.

Visit Celiac Central for more information on gluten-free news and education. Or to register your restaurant in the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program.