Putting safe, gluten-free options on the menu.
By Lindsey Yeakle
Consumer interest in gluten-free dining options continues to grow, driven in large part by interest in the health benefits of gluten-free (GF) foods, the prevalence of gluten intolerance and an increase in GF options in restaurants.
Given the growing popularity of GF choices, it comes as no surprise that restaurants and other food service establishments want to add or expand GF choices on their menus. However, in doing so they need to be very careful when it comes to ingredient selection, storage and food preparation. Even though chefs typically have a working knowledge about gluten as a protein in cereal grains, they are often not as familiar with the processes they need to put in place at their food service to ensure that GF food preparations are safe.
For those with gluten intolerance or another food allergy, the risk that the food they are served may have been contaminated is always a concern. Customers who order a GF option are putting a great deal of trust in the food service operator and the last thing that a food service wants to do is serve a dish that makes someone sick.
For those with gluten intolerance, it only takes a minuscule amount of contaminated food to cause a problem. For that reason, the FDA has ruled that items identified as “gluten-free” must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The FDA treats items labeled “gluten-friendly” or “gluten removed” under the same standard, so labels of this kind do not relax the requirements for a restaurant.
What to Consider When Offering GF Options
Planning GF menus begins with an assessment of the GF status of all ingredients that will be used in the dish. Many food products have enlisted the services of a third-party GF certification program, which will display its certification symbol on the food packaging. However, it is important to remember that once packaging is opened, a GF food product is exposed to the risk of cross-contamination.
As a result, in addition to establishing that all ingredients are GF, precautions need to be taken when preparing, storing and serving GF foods to avoid the potential for cross-contamination.
Foodservice establishments can enlist the help of a third-party GF certification organization in reviewing their practices. Certification of the food service is obtained through a process that involves walking through the foodservice facility to identify the changes that are needed to avoid the risk of cross-contamination when offering gluten-free meals. Working with a third-party certification program will give confidence to GF diners and develop loyalty with them.
Many of the steps that ensure GF safety are very simple, such as not storing gluten-exposed pans above those used for gluten-free preparations. Cross-contamination can also occur if gluten-containing and gluten-free preparations are both made using certain utensils (such as pizza cutters, graters, ice cream scoops, etc.), even if those utensils have been washed, because they are hard to fully clean in a manner that ensures no food particles remain on the utensil.
A restaurant serving GF options will also need to conduct ongoing staff training on how to properly prepare, handle and serve food to prevent cross-contamination. A third-party certification organization can help with this training, as well.
Additionally, the food service staff needs to know how to accurately answer guest questions about GF menu items. Menu items are either GF according to the FDA or even more stringent standards or they are not GF. Diners deserve to know that a restaurant’s food will be safe for them to eat. Wait staff need to take customer GF inquiries seriously and answer them correctly.
The Big Picture
Overall, there are three main principles that every restaurant or foodservice establishment should follow when offering GF menu items. The first is to adopt the mindset that preventing food safety hazards is better than relying on corrective actions after a problem has occurred. Secondly, the food service needs to recognize that preventing food contamination requires safety measures that encompass all aspects of the procurement, processing and delivery of the GF foods. Finally, worker hygiene as well as production and storage area sanitation practices play a critical role in minimizing the potential for contamination of GF foods.
Ensuring GF best practices is not an impossible task – it is comprised of simple steps regarding food placement and kitchen procedures that may not have been considered previously. Observing best practices and safely putting GF options on the menu can be well worth the effort for a foodservice establishment.
The gluten-free community tends to be very vocal and will spread the word if they find a new dining option that they like and know is safe for them. As a result, offering GF options can represent a relatively easy, low-cost way for a food service to gain more business.
Lindsey Yeakle is the Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Quality Control Manager for the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). As a trained chef diagnosed with celiac disease, Yeakle left her personal chef business to follow her true passion of ensuring those with celiac can safely and confidently eat at restaurants. GFFS has been a recognized leader in the gluten-free community for more than 20 years. For more information, visit www.gffoodservice.org.