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What’s the Deal with Gluten-Free?

“Peanut allergy on table 16.”
“The lady at 23 CANNOT have onions.”
“Gluten Allergy on Table 12.”

Statements like these are often met with sighs, groans and eye-rolls from kitchen and wait-staff alike.  It can be irritating to have to alter painstakingly constructed menus for “high-needs” guests. However, the fact of the matter is that food allergies and gluten sensitivities are now more common than ever.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley products. It’s what gives bread its delightful chew. It also causes serious problems for certain diners.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac is an autoimmune disease wherein the consumption of gluten causes extensive damage to the small intestine. When a person with celiac consumes a product containing gluten, his body reacts to the protein as to a virus and attacks the lining of the small intestine. This, in turn, can cause all manner of problems, including malnutrition, anemia and vitamin deficiencies. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, approximately three million Americans suffer from Celiac Disease.

Who else avoids gluten?

Celiac disease is not the only cause for a person to adopt a gluten-free diet. Individuals with wheat allergies and intolerances must also avoid gluten. A gluten-free diet has been shown to improve the lives of children with Autism. Others have adopted the lifestyle simply for its health and weight-loss benefits.

No matter the reason for an individual’s request for gluten-free options, we need to be educated and prepared to provide a satisfying and delicious alternative. This doesn’t necessitate the creation of an entirely separate menu (although, that is certainly an option). If the kitchen is cognizant of which products do and do and not contain gluten, they can confidently prepare gluten-free items. . .  without the eye-rolls.

Where is gluten hiding?

Bread, pasta, and baked goods are obvious, but gluten is a sneaky little protein, and can be found in some surprising items, such as:

Bran Bulgur Beer/ Liquor
Couscous Licorice Salad dressing
Dairy Substitutes Malt Sauces/ gravies
Deli meat Malt vinegar Soups/ Stocks
Dextrin Mustard Soy sauce
Farina Oats Spelt
Food coloring Panko Spice blends
Hydrolyzed protein Rye

These are just a few examples. It’s a good idea to inventory your stock items and to go over the ingredients with a fine-tooth comb. Figure out which items are hiding gluten and mark them as such.

Beyond steamed vegetables:

There are thousands of ways to create flavorful dishes without gluten. Think of it as an opportunity to get creative and explore some lesser known products and techniques.  Some interesting gluten-free starches include: amaranth, corn, quinoa, polenta, rice, and potatoes, to name a few.

Go the extra mile:

One of the best things you can do is to bring in an expert to educate your staff about gluten and other food allergies.  The NFCA offers educational and training programs specifically designed for foodservice professionals. When your staff is prepared and knowledgeable, there will be a great deal less eye-rolling and complaining.

It’s not called “the service industry” arbitrarily. By definition, it is our mission to serve. It is not an inconvenience: it is the job. By cheerfully satisfying guest needs, you will gain loyal customers for life.  As always, I love hearing your thoughts on the matter, and I hope you’ll leave a comment below. What creative ways have you found to satisfy your gluten-free guests?