The letters “GF” on a menu would probably have confused many people five to six years ago, but now it seems to be the trend. According to a 2015 Gallup poll referenced in WebMD’s article “What’s Behind the Gluten-Free Trend?”, “a gluten-free lifestyle has become one of the most popular diet trends in the U.S. One in five people now reduce or eliminate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley or rye, in their diet.”
While many seem to be avoiding gluten, only about 1 percent of the population actually has celiac disease. Hyun-seok Kim, MD, a doctor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark looked at a national survey taken from 2009 to 2014 during which time the number of people following a gluten-free diet tripled (from 0.5 percent of the population to nearly 2 percent), despite celiac disease numbers remaining stable.
Thanks to the gluten-free denotations in many restaurant menus, those with celiac disease, a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a food allergy to wheat are easily able to filter their menu choices. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to food allergies, there are EIGHT other allergens that individuals often need to avoid. Since 40 percent of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one of the allergens within the top 9, guests impacted by food allergies are typically looking to rule out not just one allergen from menu items, but potentially two, three, or four different allergens.
My egg-allergic son had a reaction when he was 2-years-old because the club sandwich I ordered for him from a nearby restaurant without mayonnaise was not omitted. As one of the sneakiest allergens, mayonnaise is just one of the unexpected foods where egg is found. According to Information from the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Eggs are a hidden ingredient in many foods, including canned soups, salad dressings, ice cream and many meat-based dishes, such as meatballs and meatloaf.” Is egg not a tricky enough allergen that it warrants a call-out in restaurant menus? Don’t even get me started on peanuts …
Pay attention next time you are dining out and I am sure you will find mention of gluten-free menu options, which is great news for those who need to avoid gluten. Unfortunately, there is no other mention of any of the other, top allergens (egg, soy, sesame, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, fish and shellfish). Individuals impacted by food allergies make excellent detectives because our dining-out experience consists of interviewing the server, manager, or owner and then fact-checking it all until we feel like we have enough assurance that we can make our order with confidence. And let’s face it, by then the appeal of eating out has left us exhausted and bitter about how ridiculous the whole ordeal is.
If you’re a big franchise operation, you’ve got it together—each of your menu items contain a thorough listing of ingredients, allergens it contains, as well as the appropriate disclaimers for potential cross-contamination. Guests impacted by food allergies can quickly and easily identify which of the top nine allergens are contained in every, single item on their menu. But what’s it going to take for our local restaurants to get on board with transparency?
We now live in a world where we expect the Panera’s and McDonald’s to give us this level of detail. If we were looking to have the same repetitive and generic experience though, we would always go to the franchise restaurants. This is about our one-of-a-kind, locally-owned restaurants. Now more than ever we need to support our local restaurants, but we also need you to meet us halfway, because for those impacted by food allergies, you’re just not making it any easier for us.
As both a marketer and food allergy parent, Katie Moreno has been navigating her way through the chaos and confusion of food allergies for the past seven years. She believes restaurants have the potential to convert people impacted by food allergies from one-time visitors into some of their most loyal customers, but restaurants need to win them over first. She currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin. Find more stories from Katie on Medium: https://medium.com/@katielynnmoreno