After years of food-makers, restaurateurs and consumers struggling with unclear definitions and making due with inconsistent labeling, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month issued an official definition of what constitutes a “gluten-free” food. I interviewed Anita Jones-Mueller, president and founder of Healthy Dining Finder, on what the new rules mean for restaurants and how they can offer healthy, safe food for gluten-free diners.

Under the FDA’s new requirements, items voluntarily labeled as “gluten free” must contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Does that standard apply to the restaurant industry?

Yes, the final rules released by the Food and Drug Administration on August 5, 2013 state that by August 5, 2014, any use of the term “gluten-free” or similar claims made in restaurants and other retail food service establishments will need to meet the new ruling that defines the standards for “gluten-free.”

The FDA ruling states that using the term is voluntary, but if the term “gluten-free” or similar terms, such as “free of gluten,” “no gluten,” or “without gluten” are used, then they must meet four criteria, primarily that the item does not contain 20 or more parts per million of gluten. You can find the criteria and additional information on RestaurantNutrition.com and/or read the FDA’s final rules on this subject.

How difficult is it for restaurants to ensure that they meet this standard?

To serve menu items that are truly “gluten-free” takes commitment, effort and training. Restaurants will need to undertake three steps:

  1. Analyze menu items to ensure that all ingredients meet the gluten-free criteria
  2. Train management, back of the house and front of the house staff to cover the important aspects of preparing, storing, handling and serving gluten-free choices
  3. Implement procedures and protocols necessary to prevent cross contact

I think there are two major issues restaurants need to be aware of. First, gluten can be hidden in all sorts of products, including seasonings, dressings, marinades, spice packets and flavorings. So it takes a very thorough analysis by a gluten-free expert to analyze all products, sub-recipes and plated recipes. Second, it’s important to prevent cross contact. This happens when even a speck of gluten comes in contact with the item that is assumed “gluten-free.” Cross contact can occur through utensils, cookware, prep tables, frying oil, serving plates, etc., as well as possibly through airborne contact. That speck can cause a person with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity to have a major reaction. And that speck of gluten may be the culprit that puts many restaurant meals termed “gluten-free” over the 20 ppm standard. So along with a thorough analysis of ingredients, processes and protocols must be in place to prevent cross contact.

How can restaurants offering gluten-free items make sure that those items comply with the new 20 ppm rule?

That’s the tough part. There are certification programs that evaluate food products to determine that they meet the gluten-free standards. But those products are generally produced in mass within gluten-free facilities. For restaurant meals that are handcrafted with many ingredients, it is much more difficult, if not almost impossible, to measure the exact level of gluten, especially for every meal served.

I think instead, the level of compliance will be primarily determined by the trust that guests have in restaurants that offer a gluten-free menu. When those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity consume gluten, they know they have been “glutened.” And with social media and review sites, “glutened” guests can wreak havoc on a restaurant’s loyalty base.

On the positive side, people who can trust that a restaurant’s gluten-free menu is truly gluten-free will likely be loyal guests, bringing family, friends and co-workers to dine with them. Restaurants that rise to this challenge will be rewarded, both in the short-term and long-term. I see this as the “wave of the future.” There are many people today who have nutrition needs, whether it is celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, food allergies, or the larger market segment who are watching calories, saturated fat and/or sodium. More restaurant companies are beginning to prioritize nutrition in their R&D, operations and marketing. And those are the restaurants that are leading, and will continue to lead, in these nutrition-focused times. That doesn’t mean compromising brand positioning, but instead, just understanding the rising importance of nutrition and meeting the needs of guests.

In the last decade, the number of Americans with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and/or food allergies has increased dramatically. And I predict that those numbers will continue to escalate. Food allergies seem to be increasing most rapidly in children. About 8% of children have food allergies. The number of children allergic to peanuts and other nuts tripled between 1997 and 2008. That is startling! I have a 12-year old, and it is alarming how many kids in her school have food allergies. Many schools have or are looking to implement rules and procedures to protect students who have food allergies. More than ever before, kids are learning about food allergies, either because they have them or they have schoolmates with food allergies. Kids are learning about the life-threatening consequences of food allergies; it’s becoming a part of growing up. And it is an important part of their dining out experience.

It is not too early — or too late — for restaurants to begin to put a plan in place to meet the growing and varied nutrition needs of their guests. That is the “wave of the future.”

What are some resources to help restaurants with gluten-free menus and/or guests with food allergies?

Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians is expert in helping restaurants develop a gluten-free menu by analyzing the products, ingredients and processes to identifying any hidden sources of gluten. Additionally, the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness has a GREAT Program to train restaurant management, cooking personnel and wait staff. It is a great program, but “GREAT” actually stands for Gluten-free Resource Education Awareness Training. GREAT provides all the education, tools, processes and procedures needed to give restaurants confidence in offering a truly “gluten-free” experience. Most everyone at the NFCA has celiac disease, so they are passionate about– and expert in — helping restaurants be successful in offering a gluten-free menu. One of NFCA’s directors told me that if restaurants can prevent salmonella, they can offer gluten-free. I think that is a good perspective — it can be done!

Helping guests with food allergies requires very similar training and processes to gluten-free. The National Restaurant Association just launched a new online ServSafe allergen training program, and the second annual Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs will be held in Boston on Nov. 5.

Any other recommendations?

Yes. Even though “gluten-free” is a popular trend right now, it’s important to differentiate between two major groups. The first group is those who have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. This group, up to 10% of the population, can’t eat if they can’t find gluten-free. Gluten-free food is the only “medicine” or “cure” for celiac disease.

The second group is comprised of those who are “trying and experimenting” with gluten-free, who may believe they feel better by avoiding gluten. In large part, they probably feel better because by avoiding foods with gluten, they are avoiding low-nutrient carbs, such as white bread, white pasta, white pizza crust, crackers, cookies and other foods. Those foods don’t supply important nutrients, and so by avoiding those foods, they feel better. Gluten is not the problem; the problem is not consuming enough high nutrient foods. “Gluten-free” doesn’t equate to healthy or high nutrient foods. There are plenty of gluten-free foods with very little nutrient value.

Last comment: It is important to meet the needs of those with celiac and food allergies. It is also very important for restaurants to prioritize efforts to reduce calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar to contribute to the prevention and control of our nation’s top diseases and premature death: obesity, heart disease and stroke, diabetes and cancer. These diseases, which will affect almost every American, can be significantly reduced through healthier diets and exercise. Restaurant meals that emphasize lean protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and unsaturated fat are directly contributing to a healthier America. HealthyDiningFinder.com features more than 4,000 dietitian-recommended, Healthy Dining choices from more than 300 restaurant brands nationwide, spanning fast food to upscale dining. It’s exciting to see so many restaurants apply their creativity and artistry to healthful cuisine that delights their guests’ tastebuds!

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