More and more often, customers come into your restaurant (or call you before visiting) asking if you have gluten-free meals on the menu. You haven’t, and you still don’t, as you’re contemplating whether it’s worth it. Why do customers ask for gluten-free meals at restaurants?
Here are some reasons customers want gluten-free menu items:
- Wheat allergies
- Celiac disease
- Gluten intolerance
This guide will explore the growing trend of going gluten-free and what restaurant owners can do about it.
First, What Is Gluten?
Everyone has heard of the term gluten, usually in conjunction with the words “gluten-free,” but what exactly is gluten?
Gluten is a type of wheat protein in everything from triticale, barley, rye, farro, spelt, durum, and wheatberries. The word that you have to say when you pronounce gluten–glue–is a good way to think about gluten.
After all, that’s gluten’s purpose in food, to maintain the structural integrity of food so it holds its shape.
Many foods contain gluten, and it goes far beyond bread. The grain triticale can appear in cereals, pasta, and bread.
Rye, another form of gluten, shows up in cereals, rye beer, pumpernickel bread, and other rye-based bread.
Barley is quite pervasive, as it’s used in brewer’s yeast, beer, soups, food coloring, and malt. Malt alone can appear in malt vinegar, malt flavoring, malt syrup, malt extract, milkshakes, malted milk, and malted barley flour.
Wheat is the most egregious, as it’s commonly used in cereals, pasta, soup, baked goods, and bread.
Three Reasons Customers Want Gluten-Free Restaurant Meals
Now that you better understand gluten, why the rising demand for gluten-free food at restaurants? Let’s explore the reasons from the intro.
1. Wheat Allergies
Some of your customers may have a wheat allergy. Although it’s easy to get wheat allergies and celiac disease (which we’ll talk about in a moment) confused, they’re not the same.
A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to wheat, which causes your body to make antibodies due to the presence of wheat proteins in your system. Celiac disease isn’t caused by wheat as a whole, but the wheat protein gluten.
Eating wheat will cause wheat allergy symptoms, as can breathing in wheat flour in some instances. The ensuing symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, breathing issues, headache, and nasal congestion.
A person with an allergic reaction to wheat can also develop skin swelling, rash, and hives. Their skin can begin to itch, as can the throat and mouth. Those areas can also become irritated and/or swollen.
The biggest risk of a wheat allergy is anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause symptoms like dizziness, fainting, pale and blue skin, swallowing difficulties, chest tightness, throat tightness, and an inability to breathe.
Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Epinephrine can treat anaphylaxis, and antihistamines can help with some wheat allergy symptoms. However, like most food allergies, the best course of action is to avoid all things wheat, hence the request for gluten-free menu items.
2. Celiac Disease
According to Verywell Health, in the United States, one in every 133 people has celiac disease.
This is a chronic autoimmune and digestive disorder. When you eat gluten, the immune system creates antibodies that attack the small intestine’s lining, known as the mucosa. When damaged, the mucosa can no longer absorb food nutrients.
This can cause nutrient deficiencies even if you eat a rich, balanced diet.
The symptoms of celiac disease can affect one’s digestive system, but not exclusively. The digestive symptoms are constipation, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Children can have different symptoms, including poor-smelling stools, gas, constipation, a swollen belly, and chronic diarrhea.
Non-digestive symptoms adults may experience include lessened spleen function, joint issues, nervous system damage, fatigue, headaches, mouth ulcers, skin rash, osteoporosis, osteomalacia, and anemia.
There’s no way to treat celiac disease except to avoid gluten, so those with the disease will request gluten-free options on your restaurant menu.
3. Gluten Intolerance
A gluten intolerance isn’t the same as celiac disease despite that it can cause a lot of the same symptoms.
While a gluten intolerance certainly doesn’t feel good after the consumption of gluten, consuming gluten doesn’t actively harm the body the same way it does with celiac disease.
Those with a gluten intolerance strictly avoid the consumption of gluten to prevent symptoms, so they too will want gluten-free offerings at your restaurant.
Should Your Restaurant Menu Go Gluten-Free? The Challenges and Benefits
According to a 2020 piece by CNET, up to 30 percent of Americans eat gluten-free diets. That number will surely only grow in the years to come, so what’s a restaurant owner to do?
As of current, the number of people who eat gluten still outnumber those who don’t. Thus, there’s no need to radicalize your menu and alienate the bulk of your audience in the process.
Instead of making the entire menu gluten-free, you might dedicate a section of the menu to gluten-free offerings. Your menu will be inclusive of people’s dietary issues and allergies so you can continue providing a quality dining experience for your entire customer base.
However, it’s not always as easy as it seems to incorporate gluten-free items on the menu for these reasons.
Gluten Is In More Foods Than You’d Think
As we mentioned earlier, gluten goes a lot farther than bread. It’s in everything from cereal to pasta to milkshakes and beer, and even that’s scratching the surface.
You might also find gluten in these menu items:
- Cocktail mixers
- Malt vinegar-prepared pickles
- Battered, crunchy, or seasoned fries
- Seasoned rice
- Imitation crab
- Veggie burgers and other meat substitutes
- Sliced deli meats
- Beef jerky
- Vegemite and other yeast spreads
- Cheese, especially with added flavors
- Specialty ketchup
- Commercially-prepared mustard
- Cooking spray
- Salad dressings with flour, soy sauce, and/or malt vinegar
- Soups with roux
- Teriyaki sauce
- Soy sauce
- Fermented vinegar
- Taco seasoning
- Barbeque sauce
- Crisp rice cereal
- Corn flakes
That will mean omitting these ingredients from your gluten-free menu and finding suitable substitutes that taste as good but don’t contain gluten.
It’s hard to find truly gluten-free foods, as you must read the labels carefully. Even then, it helps to check the ingredients list. After all, if you serve someone with a wheat allergy food that contains wheat, they could experience anaphylactic shock.
Gluten-Free Is More Expensive
A 2008 publication of the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research found that gluten-free foods on average cost 242 percent more than non-gluten-free alternatives.
Due to the date of the study, we’re inclined to believe the price of gluten-free offerings has only risen more. When you consider the current bout of inflation that’s plagued grocery and food ingredients for the first half of the 2020s as well, your restaurant could find it very expensive to go gluten-free.
If your establishment doesn’t already have a very healthy bottom line, with future projections estimating more income, you shouldn’t offer gluten-free menu items.
You don’t want to promise what you can’t deliver, and providing a gluten-free menu for a few months only to have to discontinue the menu due to the food costs will leave a sour taste in your customer’s mouths.
You Might Have to Change or Add New Vendors
Going gluten-free means expanding the ingredients and foods your restaurant orders to serve to customers. Your current vendors might not specialize in gluten-free foods, requiring you to switch to vendors that do.
You can’t discontinue the relationships with your other vendors who don’t offer gluten-free foods, as you still plan to have a gluten menu. Now you’re doubling up on vendors, which means more expenses for your restaurant.
You Must Train Your Staff
There’s yet one more challenge with introducing a gluten-free menu at your restaurant: the need to train your staff.
You’ll have to instruct your existing staff to learn how to identify gluten on ingredients labels, how to store gluten-free ingredients and foods separately from gluten-containing products, and how to recommend safe menu items to gluten-avoiding customers.
When you hire new staff, you’ll have to add a training module to your existing training materials that covers the differences between gluten and gluten-free foods and ingredients.
This is more time spent and more money.
With more people than ever dealing with celiac disease, gluten intolerances, and wheat allergies, the demand for gluten-free restaurant menu items is on the rise.
If your restaurant can afford it, it helps to respond in kind to keep this growing segment of your audience and attract new customers looking for something yummy and gluten-free to eat!