Can You Trust Gluten-Free Restaurant Items?

Cooking a gluten-free meal isn’t as simple as plucking out the croutons. Even if the ingredients are gluten-free, avoiding cross-contamination from other things in the kitchen means having separate utensils and prep areas, not to mention special training of staff—significant undertakings in restaurant environments whose employees must be reminded to wash their hands. The problem, in other words, is the preparation.

Perhaps that’s why some chains that make most of their money from wheat-eaters have stopped short of promising that their “gluten-free” foods are actually, well, gluten-free. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Domino’s and Noodles & Co. offer “gluten-free” options with disclaimers that they can’t guarantee a total absence of gluten. “Even with a strict adherence toward maintaining spotless restaurants, we simply have too much wheat and other gluten-containing food products in our kitchens to be able to eliminate the cross contamination on food prep surfaces and even in the air,” warns a message on Noodles’ website. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines “gluten-free” as containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Such items don’t do much good for those with more than mild gluten sensitivities—or faddish followers, who are plentiful and might be the real target audience. Only about 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease and an additional 18 million are gluten-sensitive, according to the FDA; yet in a survey of chefs by Nation’s Restaurant News,  gluten-free came in fifth among predicted menu trends for 2014. In a 2012 survey by NPD, meanwhile, 28 percent of adults said they had reduced or eliminated gluten from their diets. No wonder restaurants have been so eager to get gluten-free options on the menu.

Cooking for customers who elect to avoid gluten is one thing, but failing to take precautions to keep dishes gluten-fee can cause those who actually face real health concerns abdominal pain, headaches, and other symptoms. Yet as America’s gluten-phobia fervor spread, it seems that some restaurants got ahead of themselves. The Journal reviewed some flubs:

• California Pizza Kitchen rolled out pizzas made with a gluten-free crust late in 2010. Customers were furious when they realized gluten was present in other parts of the pizza, although the chain said it made it clear that the toppings weren’t gluten-free. … California Pizza Kitchen pulled the pizzas off the menu about six months later and then spent more than a year working with the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, a nonprofit that certifies products as gluten-free, to revamp its kitchen operations and train employees.

• After Texas Roadhouse introduced a gluten-free menu six years ago, some customers claimed they tested some menu items and determined they weren’t entirely gluten-free, and others reported they had gotten sick. Texas Roadhouse pulled the gluten-free menu after a year. The chain now trains staff how to answer customers’ questions about how the food is prepared. There are no printed gluten-free menus on offer.

Proper gluten-free cooking means foods are prepared on a separate or thoroughly cleaned surface, with separate or cleaned utensils, and fried in distinctly separate vats of oil. Even then, wheat flour poises the risk of going airborne.

In October, California Pizza Kitchen began offering actual gluten-free pizzas (they each contain fewer than 10 parts per million of gluten). Restaurants removed all wheat flour from the pizza-prep station and now keep all gluten-free topping ingredients within a designated area in blue containers with black lids. Blue gloves, special pans, and designated cutting boards and wheels are used to prepare the pizzas. Has it been worth the effort? The chain is selling about 35 gluten-free pizzas per store each week, less than 5 percent of sales, according to the Journal.

Sarah Grover, chief concept officer for the chain, said in an e-mail: “We feel it’s important to provide options for our guests, particularly those who love pizza but have some limitations. We know how difficult it can be to find delicious gluten-free items.”

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