Growing consumer interest in gluten-free dining options has certainly caught the eye of restaurants of all sizes. According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the global gluten-free food market is expected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 11.62 percent through 2021, driven in large part by growing awareness of the health benefits of gluten-free foods, the prevalence of gluten intolerance, and an increase in gluten-free options in restaurants.
While restaurants and other foodservice establishments understandably want to tap in to this gluten-free trend, it is important to be very mindful when it comes to ingredient selection, storage, and food preparation when claiming that a dish is gluten-free. Customers who order a gluten-free option are putting a great deal of trust in the foodservice operator, and the last thing that a restaurant wants to do is serve a patron food that makes them sick.
By far the biggest fear for someone with gluten intolerance or another food allergy is the risk that the food they are served may have been contaminated. For those with gluten intolerance, it only takes a crumb of contaminated food to cause a problem. According to the FDA, items identified as "gluten-free" must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The FDA treats items labeled "gluten-friendly" or "gluten removed" under the same standard, so labels of this kind do not relax the requirements for a restaurant.
When planning gluten-free menus, a restaurant will need to assess the gluten-free status of all ingredients and garnishes used in the dish. Many food products have enlisted the services of a third-party gluten-free certification program, which will display its symbol on the food packaging. However, it is important to note that not all programs certify the gluten-free status of the product itself. Some only certify that the manufacturer's processes meet the certifier's gluten-free standards. Moreover, as soon as the package is opened, the efficacy of the gluten-free certification ends.
Once the restaurant has verified all ingredients as gluten-free, careful attention must be paid to ensure that the preparation of the dish is not subject to cross-contamination from elements containing gluten. For example, cross-contamination can occur if gluten-containing and gluten-free preparations are both made using certain utensils (such as pizza cutters, graters, ice cream scoops, etc.), even if those utensils have been washed, because they are hard to fully clean in a manner that ensures no food particles remain on the utensil.
Precautions are also required for the processes used in preparing the gluten-free dish itself. For example, the same water used to cook ordinary pasta cannot be used to cook gluten-free vegetables or gluten-free pasta. Similarly, if a salad with croutons is mistakenly served to a customer ordering gluten-free, the salad should not just be taken back into the kitchen to have a chef remove the croutons, as residual tiny crumbs may make a gluten-intolerant diner sick.
Storage methods for ingredients and equipment are also an essential consideration in avoiding cross-contamination. Many of the necessary safeguards are simple, such as not storing pans or bowls used for gluten-containing preparations above pans used for gluten-free dishes. Additional shelving may also be needed to store things safely, and more foil may be needed compared to what the restaurant used previously.
Additionally, a restaurant serving gluten-free options will need to conduct ongoing staff training on how to properly prepare, handle, and serve food to prevent cross-contamination as well as how to accurately answer guest questions about gluten-free menu items. Menu items are either gluten-free according to FDA or even more stringent standards or they are not gluten-free. Diners deserve to know that a restaurant's food will be safe for them to eat. Wait staff need to take customer gluten-free inquiries seriously and answer them correctly.
Overall, there are three guiding principles that every restaurant should follow when offering gluten-free menu items.
1. Prevention of food safety hazards is favored over reliance on corrective actions after a problem has occurred.
2. Prevention of food contamination in the production of gluten-free foods must encompass all aspects of procurement, processing, and delivery of gluten-free foods.
3. Worker hygiene and production and storage area sanitation practices play a critical role in minimizing the potential for contamination of gluten-free foods.
As is the case with food manufacturers producing gluten-freefoods, there are third-party programs that can help a restaurant or other foodservice establish the proper procedures and training for preparing gluten-freefoods and certify the establishment, which will give confidence to gluten-freediners and develop loyalty with them.
Ensuring gluten-free best practices is not an insurmountable task—it is comprised of simple steps regarding food placement and kitchen procedures that may not have been considered previously. However, for food service establishments offering gluten-free food items, understanding the need for proper ingredient sourcing and storage, as well as the risks of cross-contamination, and establishing sound, documented procedures for avoiding these risks is essential to the safety of patrons and to delivering on the promise that their meal will truly be gluten-free.