Gluten-Free Foods Paying Off Big
Food Fad Or Health Threat?
It's tempting to dismiss the explosion of gluten-free items as a food fad; experts, however, say it is not a dietary choice but a necessity for those suffering from gluten-related disorders.
"They are doing it because they are allergic to the ingredients," says Greg Piazzi, director of culinary operations for P.F. Chang's.
The restaurant chain, which began offering seven gluten-free entrees in 2002, now offers an extensive menu of around 25 dishes at all of its 201 U.S. restaurants.
A key hurdle for the bistro, which offers Chinese-inspired cuisine, was sourcing and incorporating wheat-free soy sauce into its dishes, such as Mongolian beef and lettuce wraps.
"You're going to see a heavier push into gluten free in the next five years," Piazzi says.
Other restaurants with gluten-free entrees include Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
Garlic Jim's offers a gluten-free menu of pizzas and toppings at 28 outlets on the West Coast and in Denver.
Kellogg will debut a gluten-free Rice Krispies cereal, made with brown rice, in June.
Better food labeling is a key reason why more retailers —and individual consumers — have been able to source ingredients and take better control in the kitchen. In 2002, gluten-free labels were almost nonexistent, recalls Piazzi.
In 2007, the FDA issued a proposed rule on gluten-free food labeling. A final rule has yet to be released.
Another is training. Because even trace amounts of flour can mean trouble for sufferers of gluten-related disorders, kitchens with consistent gluten-free products boast exacting food- preparation practices, if not separate gluten-free kitchens.
P.F. Chang's conducts gluten-free "fire drills," practicing the prepping of gluten-free dishes from customer order through food prep to the table.
At select Subway restaurants in Texas, a gluten-free sandwich order means wiping down a food prep area, opening a packed gluten-free roll specially made in Minneapolis, Minn. and using special uncontaminated knives. The same single preparer completes the sandwich with various toppings, unlike regular sandwiches that are passed down the condiment aisle and finished by several preparers.
Room For Growth
"If we do this right, we can be a dominant player in this game," says Mark Christiano,Subway'sworldwide baking specialist, who helped develop its gluten-free products.
Now available only at 750 locations in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas as part of a test program, the gluten-free experiment may be rolled out at another test at 100 Portland, Ore. restaurants in mid-July, he says.
Whole Foods' Tobin, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1996, says times have changed.
"There's certainly a lot more opportunity," says Christiano.