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Is gluten free still a thing?

When David Loan opened Zen Kitchen in 2009, the focus was on locally produced and organic foods. In keeping with the healthy, sustainable theme, a few items were also gluten free. Today, says Loan, about 80 per cent of the Ottawa restaurant’s menu is gluten free.

By donalee Moulton

“We kept getting more and more requests. Now it’s a huge part of our regular customer base,” he notes.

The requests come as no surprise to health professionals, nutritionists and savvy restaurateurs. There are an estimated 2.3 million Canadians requiring gluten-free products for medical reasons. Of these, 300,000 suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that prevents people from processing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, triticale, and barley.

The number of people looking for meals without gluten is only going to increase, says Tricia Ryan, a former dietitian and principal of the Gluten-Free Agency in Toronto, which helps advertisers market to this community. “Celiac disease is on the rise. It is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s, and it is expected to double every 15 years.”

Restaurant owners and chefs across North America are recognizing the eating opportunities presented by this growing market. According to the Restrictive Diets Market Intelligence Report, issued recently by the foodservice research firm Technomic, menu items billed as gluten-free increased by 61 per cent between 2010 and 2011.

Two key issues arise for restaurants trying to appeal to customers who prefer their meals sans gluten: cross-contamination and good taste. Both are attainable goals, but both require creativity and elbow grease.

According to the Canadian Celiac Association, cross-contamination is a big concern – and a small one. Indeed, crumbs matter. People who eat gluten-free need the reassurance that their food has not come in contact with any product that contains gluten while it was being prepared.

“This is not as simple as it sounds,” says Loan. “For diners with celiac disease, even the smallest amount can cause a huge problem. People can land in the hospital. More education is necessary among chefs and owners.”

Customers eating gluten-free dishes also demand great taste.

As customer demand for gluten-free meals increases, new technologies and ingredients are being developed to improve the taste, appearance and nutritional content of gluten-free food products.

Because of manufacturing and ingredient challenges, gluten-free products often have a gritty or dry texture. To mask or enhance a bland taste, some have high amounts of sugar and little nutritional value. Fortunately, innovative manufacturing technologies are improving the texture of gluten-free products, and the development and use of flours, starches and bran made from alternative ingredients are enhancing taste and appearance.

Ultimately, the key to mouth-watering success is thinking differently, says Loan. “Stop trying to mimic the textures of traditional foods. For example, with pastries, use a nut-based crust instead. Be creative.”

Meet the gluten-free customer

  • Globally, around 20 per cent of consumers in a Datamonitor survey said they avoid certain foods due to an allergy or intolerance most or all the time. A further 22 per cent claimed to do this occasionally.
  • According to Datamonitor, those who are influenced by gluten-free claims are healthier eaters, more ethical, experimental, and more attracted to natural and organic ingredients than the average global consumer.
  • Consumers in the 50-64 and 25-34 age ranges in North America are more likely to be influenced by gluten-free marketing.
  • Women are more influenced by gluten-free marketing and claims than men in North and South America.

Top tips to gluten awareness

  • Create a safe, gluten-free environment. If possible, have two sets of certain equipment to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Label products. Create jars of gluten-free products and baking supplies.
  • Train your staff. Frontline workers need to understand the needs of gluten-free diners and always be aware of the possibility of cross-contamination.
  • Clean, clean, clean. Wipe down all surfaces frequently to keep germs away and avoid crumbs.