“Why gluten-free?” is a question I’ve had to respond to many times.
Gluten, Latin for “glue,” is the protein that binds grains that are commonly present in the American diet, such as wheat, barley, and rye. The signature chewy consistency of traditional baked goods is provided by gluten and can be difficult to replicate using gluten-free flours, in addition to higher production costs. Gluten has made its way into most of our meals because wheat provides a simple and inexpensive food source. There is a high demand for easy food in our society, and we usually prefer our food to be tasty and inexpensive; wheat delivers on both fronts. Who doesn’t love the comforting taste and aroma of bread, or the simple deliciousness of pizza, pasta, pastries, and breakfast cereals?
However, for many Americans, gluten is off limits and options are severely limited. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to respond to the presence of gluten by destroying intestinal villi (microscopic intestinal projections that collect and carry nutrients into the bloodstream) and resulting in malnutrition and intestinal irritation if undiagnosed or untreated, affects about 1% of the population – about 3 million Americans. While celiac disease is the most highly recognized gluten-related ailment, there are many other conditions that can only be treated by reduction or elimination of wheat consumption, and it is estimated that approximately 18 million Americans suffer from varying degrees of non-celiac gluten sensitivity and intolerance. Rather than affecting the immune system, gluten sensitivity and intolerance affect the digestive system and as with celiac disease can result in nutrient deficiency, respiratory problems, dermatitis and other skin abnormalities, muscle cramps, joint discomfort, fatigue, behavioral changes, and more.
From a business perspective, this means a large portion of the American public is not having their dietary needs met by most food establishments, especially when it comes to dessert options. While gluten-free desserts were once considered to be part of an extremely niche market segment for people living with celiac disease, that is no longer the case. Sales of gluten-free products have steadily grown at a rate of about 30% per year since 2006, reaching $5.6 billion in 2015. As medical testing technology for gluten-related conditions becomes more accurate, more people will be diagnosed and increasingly opt for gluten-free diets. Serving this large segment of the public, as well as health-conscious eaters who enjoy consuming gluten-free products as a lifestyle choice, by tapping into this exponentially growing market is an excellent way to increase sales and repeat customers.
The rewards of investing in a gluten-free menu are significant and will increase as awareness of gluten-related medical conditions and benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle become progressively more popular. There are numerous websites and applications where diners can search for establishments that offer gluten-free menus (Find Me Gluten-Free is the most popular) and make decisions about where to eat based on the gluten-free friendliness of a restaurant or bakery. Positioning your business as a gluten-free accommodating establishment will open doors to new customers who are not always looking for dedicated gluten-free bakeries or restaurants, but simply a place where they can safely enjoy a sweet treat, pick up a loaf of bread, or order a birthday or wedding cake.
When offering gluten-free options in an establishment that also produces foods that contain gluten, it is important to follow some simple, yet crucial, guidelines to be able to serve customers with gluten-related medical conditions:
- Avoid cross-contamination by always cleaning surfaces, tools, bowls, equipment, hands, and changing gloves before preparing and serving gluten-free items (even a small trace of gluten can trigger a negative autoimmune reaction). Clean and sanitize before every gluten-free order!
- A separate oven for gluten-free baked goods will ensure they are safe for celiacs
- Never fry gluten-free items in oil that has been used to fry foods containing gluten
- If space permits, use a dedicated area of the kitchen to prepare gluten-free items and make certain this area is always kept free of wheat flour and any traces of gluten
- Always store gluten-free ingredients and items separately from ingredients and items containing gluten, and label them accordingly