Here’s the problem with ordering anything gluten-free at a restaurant: If it’s not prepared on a separate surface, using separate equipment, the dish may have been contaminated with gluten. That lack of assurance is a major bummer for the roughly 3 million Americans with celiac disease and other gluten-avoidance conditions, particularly since these items are often priced at a premium. Exhibit one: pizza.
Here’s how Stephen Hughes, chief executive of Boulder Brands (BDBD), the maker of popular gluten-free labels such as Udi’s and Glutino, explained the state of gluten-free pizza during an earnings call on Thursday:
“If you go to a lot of pizza chains today, I mean the economics of this are pretty interesting. Because they’re up-charging the pizza—the gluten-free pizza crust $1, $2, $3 per pizza crust—per pizza. And they’re saying, ‘This is gluten-free pizza crust,” but it’s being cooked in a gluten-full oven. … Changing things in those restaurants—across 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 restaurants—is challenging.”
For restaurants that don’t want to deal with the trouble—and expense—of redesigning kitchens to have dedicated gluten-free ovens, it appears that Boulder Brands is designing a new packaging to protect gluten-free pizzas from stray gluten. “It’s kind of a bake-in-bag,” Hughes explained, “so it goes in and never is exposed to the [gluten] in the kitchen or in the oven.”
How does gluten-free pizza from a bag taste? It’s getting there. Jim Leighton, Boulder Brand’s chief operating officer, said: “I sampled some of that product yesterday, and we’re getting very close.” A spokeswoman for the company declined to provide additional details.
Restaurants are under pressure to provide better guarantees to gluten-free diners. New rules from the Food and Drug Administration went into effect last week, requiring packaged foods labeled “gluten-free” to have fewer than 20 parts of the protein per million. The FDA says that restaurants making gluten-free claims on their menus should be consistent with this definition.