Wheat is a staple of the American diet. It’s in nearly everything—from processed and packaged foods to sauces and soups in restaurants. But in the last decade or so, wheat has been posing a problem for many Americans.
It is estimated that a whopping 3 million Americans suffer from celiac disease, a debilitating inflammatory autoimmune condition that affects the digestive system. People who suffer from celiac disease, however, are certainly not the only ones who avoid gluten. In fact, 18 million Americans report suffering from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which can cause a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms, such as digestive distress, headaches, and skin problems. Of course, there are also many people who don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity but still adhere to a gluten-free diet for other health reasons.
It therefore goes without saying that there is a demand for gluten-free foods at restaurants and bakeries across the country. People are looking for gluten-free alternatives to their favorite foods—from pasta dishes to muffins. For food establishments, however, offering these items can be tricky and may leave businesses vulnerable to legal action if a customer has a reaction to a supposed “gluten-free” item. That’s why it’s important to understand the gluten-free labeling regulations for restaurants and bakeries.
The FDA’s Gluten-Free Food Labeling Regulations
In 2014, the FDA came out with a definition of “gluten-free” for food manufacturers who wanted to use the term on their labels. The set of guidelines they provided for gluten-free labeling also applies to restaurants and bakeries that wish to use the term “gluten-free” on their menus or menu boards. As such, restaurants and bakeries have to be very careful about using the term.
Let’s take a look at the official guidelines so you can ensure your gluten-free products are in line with the FDA’s standards:
- The food item must be inherently gluten-free (i.e. a food that naturally doesn’t contain gluten, like tea, coffee, or fruit).
- The food item must be free of any gluten-containing grains, including wheat, barley, spelt, rye, kamut, or einkorn.
- The food must not contain any substances made from gluten-containing grains that have been processed to remove the gluten (i.e. wheat starch) unless the product has fewer than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten.
- The food item has fewer than 20 ppm of gluten if it is prepared in a gluten-containing facility where cross-contact may occur.
It’s important to keep in mind that since gluten-free labeling in restaurants and bakeries is voluntary, establishments do not have to label their foods as gluten-free even if they meet the above criteria. And, since it is voluntary, there is no designated gluten-free symbol, nor a specific place where the gluten-free claim must appear on your menu or menu board. Therefore, it is up to you when and where you want to use the term “gluten-free” in your establishment, as long as the dish meets the criteria.
If you are running a gluten-free restaurant where no gluten is allowed on the premises, using the term “gluten-free” won’t be a problem. Things get a little tricky when your establishment does have gluten (i.e. wheat flour, bread, pasta, etc.) in the kitchen, however, because cross-contamination can occur. If you are really serious about providing gluten-free food for your customers, consider using a gluten-testing kit and reviewing test results for the products you use to create your recipes. The bottom line is that as long as you ensure your product contains less than 20 ppm of gluten, you won’t have to worry about being penalized by the FDA or causing an adverse reaction for people with gluten allergies.
Advertising Gluten-Free Foods in an Establishment that Uses Gluten
You may want to avoid using the term “gluten-free” for foods made without gluten if your establishment offers both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods due to the risk of cross-contamination (unless you routinely test your products to ensure they contain less than 20 ppm of gluten). You can still, however, advertise the fact that these foods were not made with gluten by using the following terms:
- Gluten Friendly: This is a term used by many restaurants that specialize in gluten-containing foods (i.e. pizzas, sandwiches, etc.) but also offer gluten-free options. It implies that the food may not be entirely gluten-free because it is prepared in the same kitchen as gluten-containing foods but that it is okay for those with mild gluten sensitivities. Not everyone is familiar with this term, so it is a good idea to define it on your menu or have servers explain to customers what it means.
- Made Without Gluten: This term is a bit more self-explanatory that “gluten friendly.” It indicates the product was intentionally made without gluten while leaving room for the fact that cross-contamination could have occurred.
- Wheat-Free: Wheat has the highest concentration of gluten of all grains, and many people who are sensitive to gluten do consume grains with lower gluten content, like spelt, rye, and barley. If you use these grains instead of wheat in a dish or food item, using this term might be a good idea. Just remember that just because a food is wheat-free does not mean it is gluten-free.
When it comes to food allergies and sensitivities in restaurant settings, communication is incredibly important. Make sure your serving staff is informed about what these different terms mean so they can communicate properly with customers who do not eat gluten. It’s also good practice to have servers ask diners if they have any allergies, sensitivities or dietary restrictions before they place their order, as it is common for diners to make assumptions about menu items that could lead to adverse reactions.
Allergen Statements Made Easy
It’s also a good idea to provide an allergen statement on your menu stating that while the kitchen does its best to ensure certain foods are safe for people avoiding gluten, there is the possibility of cross-contamination. Keep in mind that gluten is not the only allergen you need to be careful about in your restaurant. Flagging dishes that contain any of the eight major allergens is important. While this may sound like a great deal of work, nutrition analysis software like MenuCalc can flag allergens in each of your recipes instantly so you don’t have to flip through your recipe binder and count the allergens one by one.
At the end of the day, informing your customers of the allergens in your menu items is the safest and most respectful thing to do. Not only does it help protect your establishment from legal action should an adverse reaction occur, but it also keeps your customers safe and happy. And we all know that happy customers are the key to a thriving business.
MenuCalc is an industry-leading online nutrition analysis software that provides complete nutrition information and allergen statements for your menu items. Start a free-trial or contact us today to learn more. Short on time or staff? Check out our consulting services to have an expert do the work for you.