Gluten-Free more than a Fad Diet

UPDATE: March 7, 2013 – Gluten-Free is a topic you can’t ignore.  Since we first posted this blog in January, we have seen numerous gluten-free articles including this article in Restaurant Hospitality.   We wanted to update our readers on some interesting insights found in this article.

“The NPD Group revealed some staggering numbers: 30 percent of U.S. adults say they want to cut down or be free of gluten. And more than 200 million restaurant visits last year included consumers ordering food described as “gluten-free” or “wheat-free” — more than double what it was just four years ago.”

“Those numbers are too large for restaurant operators to ignore, says Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst.”

As you will note from our blog post, the term “Gluten-Free” is only found on 1% of menus and most commonly found paired with salad or pizza. It is still too early to tell in our data what kind of movement this topic will have in the future, but it is a movement that is top of mind to many manufacturers. Upcoming in May is Celiac Awareness Month, so look for another blog post from us on some more data & insights surrounding Gluten-Free.

In recent news, college students in Massachusetts were able to cite the Americans With Disabilities Act when they felt that their school’s meal plans were inadequate in addressing their dietary needs of gluten-free offerings. You can read more about the recent settlement on NPR’s: The Salt

There has been a lot of buzz around the food industry about items that are gluten-free.  Is it a fad? Will it stick around? How popular will it get? We at Food Genius want to talk a little bit about why we feel its here to stay and how restaurants are responding to increased pressure for gluten-free items.

NPD_Gluten.pptx Graph via NPD Group

What is Gluten and Where can it be Found?

Most consumers understand gluten as what gives dough its stickiness and bread its structure to trap gas and rise. Gluten is a protein that can be found in specific grains and goes beyond bread. It can be found in rye, triticale, barley & all types of wheat  (which includes durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, einkorn, and farro).


Bread Alligator

Bread Alligator, as made by Boudin Bakeries of San Francisco, CA – Taken by Flickr user THE Holy Hand Grenade! 


Why the Need for Gluten-Free?

The need for gluten-free items comes from on going research into Celiac’s Disease, wheat allergies and gluten intolerance (a.k.a gluten sensitivity). These conditions are commonly confused, but are very different:

Celiac’s Disease – Celiac’s is an auto-immune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is eaten. This damage prevents the human intestinal system from absorbing essential vitamins and nutrients and can worsen over time. Symptom’s can include ongoing cramping, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, headaches & more.  According to the Celiac Disease Foundation the cause of Celiac Disease is still a mystery, but approximately 1 in 133 people in the US are affected by it.

Wheat Allergy – Allergic reactions to wheat are less common, but do occur. They should be treated like a typical allergy and can cause swelling, rashes & other allergic reactions similar to those of peanuts, shellfish or dairy.

Gluten Intolerance- Gluten intolerance often refers to those who show symptoms of Celiac’s like fatigue or gas, but have not started to see symptoms like damaged intestinal lining. All Celiac’s starts as a gluten intolerance, but not all gluten intolerance is Celiac’s Disease.

The range of which people experience any of these symptoms varies, but the easiest and most effective test for understanding how gluten affects the body is by doing a strict gluten-free diet for 3-6 weeks and understanding how it effects daily lifestyle.

Why is it such a Big Deal?

Eating a gluten-free diet it not hard. There are countless possibilities of what can be made gluten-free. Indian, Ethiopian, Latin American & certain Asian cuisines as largely gluten-free due to uses of more indiginous flours like teff, lentil, soy or chickpea. What is hard, is getting convenient access to items that are made gluten-free. The most common convenience foods in the US such as sandwiches, cookies, cereals, crackers, bread, pasta, pizza, muffins, bagels & most desserts all are based on the use of wheat flour. Next time you walk through a grocery store, take a look at how many complete aisles a person on a gluten-free diet will skip completely.

Grocery Store - Fred Meyer

Photo taken by Flickr user lyzadanger


This is increasingly difficult for restaurants as well, as more consumers look for convenience foods out of home and on the go.Currently sandwiches can be found at 75% of the restaurant locations you can visit and accounts for 18% of all the menu items available. This means when looking at a menu, a sandwich appears more often than any other item.  There are also many hidden sources of gluten like many soy sauces, flour that gets into the air, beer, thickeners & more.

How are Restaurants Responding?

The actual term “gluten-free” only occurs on 1% of the 100,000 menus that we track & you’ll find gluten-free options more common at chain restaurant locations.


% of menus that call out specific dishes, of menus that feature gluten-free items.
(Food Genius Reports) 

The most common menu item featured as gluten-free is the salad. This makes sense since salads, unless they are served with bread or have crutons, are a simple to make gluten-free option. In contrast, the second most common dish menued as gluten-free is pizza. This is a significantly more difficult option to offer since gluten can be found in all traditional pizza crusts. The pizza industry has definitely started to step up to the plate when it comes to the needs of gluten-free individuals. We will see how other industries start to respond as well.

Of grains, rice is the most common mentioned gluten-free grain item found in 19% restaurant menus offering gluten-free options; this is largely found in chain restaurants. However, pasta is right behind it occurring on 18% of unique restaurant menus offering gluten-free option; this is largely in independent restaurants.

Keep an eye out for more gluten-free items, and for new restaurants in the gluten-free space. Gluten-Free bakeries, such as Mariposa in the SF Bay Area, are becoming more common place. We are also starting to see new contenders like Udi’s Bread Cafe taking a stronghold in the local Boulder, CO area.

**Bold data was found using Food Genius Reports on 1/22/2013

Benjamin Stanley is co-founder and VP of Product for Food Genius. He has a degree in culinary arts and a background in foodservice & food product development from various food and food ingredient manufacturers.

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