When the FDA released its standard for gluten-free food products in 2013, it ushered in a golden age for gluten-free eating. Consumers looking to lose weight or emulate their favorite celebrity adopted the diet as a lifestyle choice, joining the more than three million Americans who eat gluten-free out of medical necessity. By 2015, sales of gluten-free products had increased by 136 percent. Demand for gluten-free food had never been higher.

Serving food that is truly gluten-free is vital because even a tiny particle of gluten can cause problems for someone with celiac disease.

With new products entering the market and dieticians recommending eating more whole grains, consumer tastes are evolving, causing experts to predict that the gluten-free market will plateau over the next five years. However, as fad dieters leave the market, demand for gluten-free food and beverages will come from the approximately six-to-seven percent of Americans with celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity. Unlike fad dieters, who gravitate toward products and food services that are quick and easy even if they contain small amounts of gluten, people with gluten sensitivity require food that is truly gluten-free. At the same time, they want foods that taste great and have an appealing texture.

While the best gluten-free products have dramatically improved in taste and texture, there are also more low-quality offerings on the market. During the heyday of gluten-free eating, food manufacturers rushed new products to market. In many cases, these manufacturers sacrificed quality for quantity. Offering appealing dishes that are gluten-free can be a challenge for restaurants as well. In a recent undercover investigation, Good Morning America sent pizzas from 15 NYC restaurants to a lab to test whether their gluten-free claims were accurate. Their findings? Two of the 15 pizzas tested positive for gluten over the 20 parts per million threshold established by the FDA.

Results like these have led consumers to look on gluten-free food with a skeptical eye. From 2014-2015, when demand for gluten-free products was peaking, fewer than half of consumers believed that gluten-free claims were accurate. The presence of gluten, a complex protein commonly found in wheat, barley and rye, is a minor annoyance to people who adopt gluten-free diets as a lifestyle choice. For people with celiac disease, the consequences are far more serious. The most immediate effects include severe cramping, vomiting, and cognitive symptoms like brain fog and irritability. If left untreated, gluten poisoning can cause serious intestinal damage. Gluten contamination is also correlated to a heightened risk for cancer, fractures, anemia, and osteoporosis. 

Restaurants must satisfy the needs of discerning customers who want nutritious, delicious gluten-free meals.

Serving food that is truly gluten-free is vital because even a tiny particle of gluten can cause problems for someone with celiac disease. Restaurants must satisfy the needs of discerning customers who want nutritious, delicious gluten-free meals.

So how do restaurants reassure customers who have soured on poor-quality offerings and inflated claims about gluten-free products? For many restaurants, certification is an excellent way to validate their gluten-free menus. In many cases, the standards adopted by gluten-free certification organizations are more stringent than those published by the FDA. Restaurants that obtain gluten-free certification can publish a symbol on their menus and marketing materials, offering consumers visible assurance that their kitchens and dishes meet the highest standards for gluten-free food preparation. More importantly, restaurant staff learn best practices for avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen.

Consumers who avoid gluten out of medical necessity ensure an ongoing demand for gluten-free options. For restaurants looking to differentiate themselves, validating gluten-free claims and offering high quality dishes are the keys to success in a changing market.

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