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Trend watch: More Menus offer gluten-free options

Seafood is a great choice for customers with celiac disease or gluten intolerance

P.F. Chang's and Bonefish Grill cater to gluten-sensitive customers with "safe" menu selections.
By Lauren Kramer
April 01, 2006

For the millions of Americans who require gluten-free food, seafood is a great choice. Restaurant operators  need to learn about gluten, so when customers on a gluten-free diet want seafood, they don’t have to question the safety of your products.

Ronnie Alicea, a registered dietician who does customer-relationship food management for gluten-free food companies, says gluten-free foods are being called the next culinary craze.

In part, it’s because there are at least a million Americans diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that demands a lifetime diet free of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Twice as common as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis and cystic fibrosis combined, celiac disease affects approximately 1 percent of the population and is frequently misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance. According to the Celiac Sprue Association, one in 133 people have celiac disease, but only about 3 percent of these have been diagnosed. “This means,” says CSA, “that there are over 2.1 million undiagnosed people with celiac disease in the United States.”

In addition to celiac, gluten intolerance is a reason for the rising popularity of gluten-free foods.

“The statistics are vague for how many Americans are gluten intolerant, and I’ve heard ranges from 10 percent to 30 percent,” says Alicea. “That means there are over 3 million people in North America who need a gluten-free diet.”

And they like to eat out. Research published in the 2003 Journal of the American Dietetic Association on lifestyle issues showed that 86 percent of people with celiac disease rate dining out as their most impacted social activity.

“There are large celiac support organizations with support groups in every state and province, and they disseminate relevant information regularly,” says Alicea. “A frequently covered topic is where and how to dine out. If a restaurant chooses to add gluten-free selections to its menu, marketing is as easy as letting the group know.

“If people with celiac disease have confidence that their food will be prepared in a safe and tasty manner, they will be loyal customers.”

Plain fish is gluten-free, so those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease can easily consume it in naked form. But the possibility of contamination arises when sauces, breading and additives enter the picture. Pan-fried fish dredged in flour is unacceptable for someone on this diet, for example, as is the addition of many sauces and marinades and crumbs containing wheat, barley and rye.

It’s difficult to imagine the ubiquity of gluten unless you start looking specifically for it. Soy sauce, gravies, seasonings, some alcohols and beers, some baking powders and baking sodas, bouillon cubes or bases, coffee-creamer substitutes — these are just a few foods whose ingredients are highly suspect to those on a gluten-free diet.

This can turn a restaurant meal into a nightmare for celiacs. Diagnosed with the disease four years ago, Kim Koeller started researching how and what to eat in restaurants. When she discovered the dearth of reference material on the subject, she partnered with New York restaurateur Robert LaFrance and in September 2005 published “Let’s Eat Out: Your Passport to Living Gluten & Allergy Free.”

“Eating seafood in a restaurant is pretty straightforward if you know what questions to ask,” Koeller says. “As long as you know it’s not breaded or flour dusted and that it contains no gluten in any sauce or side dish, seafood is much easier than many other dishes.”

Koeller says many restaurants have gluten-free menus or offerings today, including Legal Sea Foods, Mitchell’s Fish Markets, P.F. Chang’s and Outback Steakhouse’s Bonefish Grill.

Mitchell’s introduced its gluten-free menu nine months ago, a development that’s been very successful for the restaurant chain, reports Regional Chef Will Wadsworth.

“We kept getting queries from customers who couldn’t eat certain things, so introducing a gluten-free menu was something we wanted to do,” he says. “It’s made it easier on our guests, but also on our chefs, who now have clear direction on exactly what is gluten free.”

Developing a gluten-free menu took approximately five months, with the assistance of Cynthia Kupper, a nutritional consultant and registered dietician with the Seattle-based Gluten Intolerance Group. “It wasn’t too difficult to create,” says Wadsworth. “When we went through our recipes, a lot of the changes required to make them gluten free were really minor.”

Among the items on the new menu are Cedar Roasted Atlantic Salmon, served with honey balsamic eggplant, roasted vegetables, asparagus, portobello relish and goat cheese, and Grilled or Broiled Jumbo Shrimp with scallion mashed potatoes, sweet shallot butter and market vegetables.

“Customers are very surprised and grateful that we have a gluten-free menu,” says Wadsworth. “We’re definitely glad we did it.”
Gluten-free food is no less flavorful than food with gluten.

“When I cook wheat-free meals, no one knows that it’s gluten free,” says Kyle Shadix, a nutrition and sanitation instructor at the New York Restaurant School who also acts as menu consultant at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. “There are plenty of alternatives [to wheat flour], like arrowroot and bean flours, chickpea, cassava, corn, dal, potato, rice, soy and tapioca. I find it’s best to substitute a blend of these alternatives to achieve a true wheat-like taste and texture in batters for fish.”

On the whole, says Shadix, it can be difficult for celiacs to dine out, as many times the staff at a restaurant has not been educated about food allergies, or the chef frowns on those “special orders” from “difficult customers.”

“Chefs need to know that there’s an unexplained rise in food allergies in general, and they need to read labels carefully to identify potential contaminants and be more aware of hidden sources of gluten,” he says.

Identifying gluten has been eased by the new FDA regulations on packaged food, which specify that any food containing wheat must list that information separately from the ingredient list.

“Dishes that are not naturally gluten free need to be examined to see if it’s possible to make modifications to their culinary practices to make them so,” says Koeller. “And continued training of waitstaff and kitchen personnel must be implemented so they understand the diet and know what dishes, ingredients and preparation techniques are not

The market for gluten-free menu offerings is only going to grow. The sooner you prepare to meet that expanded demand, the better your sales will be.

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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