Five Steps to Serving Gluten-free Consumers

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Gluten free is a trend that is here to stay. According to Kora Lazarski of SPINS, “The gluten-free market continues to show steady growth and is now a $26 billion market.” Technavio predicts the gluten-free packaged food market to grow at around 6 percent over the next several years.

For retailers to capture part of the gluten-free pie, it is critical that they understand the needs of their customers and how their merchandizing, prepared foods and catering can meet those needs. Gluten-free consumers vary widely in their reasons for seeking out gluten-free products, and it’s important that those marketing gluten-free options safely serve those who need the gluten-free diet most—those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Is celiac disease really that serious? Absolutely. Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. It is triggered by consumption of gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, rye and their derivatives. Left untreated, celiac disease can increase a person’s risk of developing other health complications such as osteoporosis, infertility and even some cancers.

A condition closely linked to celiac disease is gluten sensitivity. This term has been coined to describe those individuals who cannot tolerate gluten and experience symptoms similar to those with celiac disease but who lack the intestinal damage as seen in celiac disease.

Gluten-free customers may ask a lot of questions about your food handling procedures, but take no offense. Research indicates that 70 percent of people with celiac disease suffer from gluten exposure despite trying to stay gluten free, and many in the celiac community report that they often get glutened while dining outside the home. Symptoms of gluten exposure can be debilitating and can last for days or even weeks. Your customers really want to be able to eat at your establishment, and they need to have confidence that you are taking their needs seriously.

To help foodservice professionals learn the gluten-free ropes, Beyond Celiac offers the GREAT Kitchens Gluten-Free Training Program. Beckee Moreland, director of GREAT Kitchens and who also has celiac disease, offers the following tips to do gluten free the right way.

1. Understand Your Customers

Start with basic education that includes understanding the medical necessity of the gluten-free diet and the gluten-free diet basics:

• Highlight Beyond Celiac resources for a staff in-service training. Employees should be able to understand the customers’ needs and base their responses on facts, not the mythology that often surrounds the gluten-free diet. These resources include both simple infographics that highlight the most important facts and in-depth guides that can form the foundation of this education and training.

• Know the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) guidelines for gluten-free labeling. These guidelines form the foundational knowledge about the rules governing the use of the gluten-free label. Not all manufacturers, including small specialty businesses that may be in your local community, truly understand the risks in producing gluten-free products, … especially when high-risk grains like oats and millet are used.

• Refrain from offering medical advice. It is critical that people who maintain a gluten-free diet address to various health problems be follow by medical providers. Doctors should first screen for celiac disease and, upon diagnosis, provide information to ensure that the patient does not experience unintended health complications that can arise from mis-managing the gluten-free diet.

2. Merchandize Appropriately

When looking at store layout, there are ways you can minimize problems and show your customers that you are gluten savvy. Recognizing how things like packaging and product placement, section layout and shelf tags can create clarity or confusion for those needing gluten-free foods can make all the difference in the world. Many gluten-free customers prefer to shop in a dedicated gluten-free section. Here are some concerns when foods are co-mingled:

• Products packaged in bags, especially bags with no interior liner, can cause problems with cross-contact. Flour from bags can leak out, and the dust can create flour clouds that can inadvertently get into gluten-free packages.

• Shelf tags can be inaccurate when customers or unknowing employees move things around or reshelf differently when stocking.

• Bulk bins can be problematic when not cleaned completely or when scoops are moved from bin to bin.

• Brands that produce both gluten-free and gluten-containing products with similar packaging can be confusing to customers who know these brands for their gluten-free attributes.

• Nuts and other products that use voluntary “may contain” language leave gluten- and allergen-free customers scratching their heads.

3. Ensure Gluten-free Ingredients in Your Deli, Prepared Foods Section or Catering Department

If your ingredients aren’t gluten free, your final product won’t be either. Here are some steps to making sure your ingredients are gluten free.

• Use as many naturally gluten-free ingredients as possible, but only use gluten-free grains that are labeled gluten free, since grains are at high risk for cross-contact in the field, in milling, in production and in transport.

• Reach out to a registered dietitian for help in identifying hidden sources of gluten, such as brewer’s yeast.

• Identify hidden gluten. Gluten can hide in foods such as salad dressings, deli meats, condiments such as soy sauce, sauce thickeners and marinades.

• Read labels carefully—wheat is an allergen so it must be called out on a label according to FALCPA (Food Allergy Labeling & Consumer Protection Act), but gluten does not. Barley is used as a flavoring agent in many processed foods so you need to look carefully at the ingredients, not just the allergen statement.

Once you are confident that your ingredients are gluten free, you’ll need to make sure that you keep them that way. Carefully determine what you will offer and label as gluten-free from your kitchen; start with naturally gluten-free options like salads and soups, add gluten-free alternatives, such as gluten-free buns or breads for sandwiches. Here are a few tips to help with kitchen preparation, but for a comprehensive education and understanding of gluten-free foodservice protocols, Beyond Celiac offers a gluten-free foodservice program, GREAT Kitchens:

• Store gluten-free ingredients away from gluten-containing items

• Create a dedicated station for gluten-free preparation away from airborne flour

• Know when separate equipment, like toasters, are required

• Use color-coded gloves, utensils, cutting boards to reinforce avoidance of cross-contact

• Remember crumbs count—as little as an 1/8 tsp of gluten-containing product can cause a reaction

• Clearly list ingredients on your menu and clearly label any prepared items

• Take special precautions to keep your gluten-free dishes away from your gluten containing ones by using barriers, separate stations and other segregation techniques

People with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity need to have confidence in your gluten-free claim. You can boost their trust through clear labeling and explicitly listing ingredients or you risk disappointing them and leaving them feeling alienated, isolated and anxious.

Jennifer North, vice president of Beyond Celiac, has seen it happen first-hand. “I once visited a supermarket that does a great job of merchandizing their gluten-free foods and they are known throughout the region for the products and services they provide to the gluten-free community, including access to registered dietitians in store,” she noted. “But when I went to their café, I noticed the menu label and scratched my head in disbelief. It said ‘low gluten diet friendly menu available.’ The customer behind me in line was newly diagnosed. She was frustrated and confused because she had no idea if she should eat there.”

Consistency is also important. Use plain, clear language, not legal jargon. If your store has a gluten-free section or icon used throughout to guide customers to gluten-free products, only use that icon or logo in the foodservice section if it holds the same standard. “I know of a store in my area that is recognized for understanding the needs of special diet customers, and they even provide education and resources for special diet customers on their website. Their store clearly labels ‘GF’ in their natural and organic section. However, in their dining area, GF means ‘gluten-friendly’ not ‘gluten-free’,” North said. “This inconsistent message is damaging to the brand they have worked so hard to build.”

4. Sample, but Sample Safely

Gluten-free consumers can pay premiums as high as 30 percent for their food. Sampling is a great way to encourage them to experiment and diversify before committing to a large grocery bill of items that may end up in the birdfeeder. If you offer sampling of gluten-free items at your establishment, there are some additional things to keep in mind. Care needs to be taken to avoid cross-contact with dips and spreads. If you have a gluten-free hummus to sample, for example, make sure that all of the items that are used for the tasting are also gluten-free.

• Sampling is a great way to promote new gluten-free products, especially to families. With so many choices and ingredients, “try before you buy” increases the odds that a customer will be pleased with her or his purchases.

• Educate your sample servers on what is gluten free and why customers may ask about it.

• Use clear signage for the brand and “free-from” ingredients.

• Have the package handy so customers can read it to decide if it’s right for them.

• Always, always, always pay attention to sampling preparation. There is nothing more frustrating than entering a store to see a sample of gluten-free hummus containing a slew of crumbs from wheat crackers or even worse, gluten-free pizza prepared on the rack in a non-dedicated toaster oven.

5. Support and Educate Your Customers

The gluten-free retailer can also play a vital role in assisting their shoppers in staying gluten safe in their own homes by modeling best practices and encouraging clear labeling of foods once the customer gets home. A survey done by Beyond Celiac reveals that more than two-thirds of respondents live in a “mixed” household with both gluten-free and gluten-full eaters. Labeling spreads, condiments, butter and any other item that might be a zone for cross-contact is crucial for the gluten-free family member(s) to stay safe. Likewise, dedicating a toaster and utensils is as critical at home as it is when eating out.

The gluten-free retailer has a unique opportunity to help their newly-diagnosed customers who may not have access to resources to guide them as they embark on the gluten-free diet. First and foremost, point them to for great information for those who have to go gluten free, as well as friends, family members and those in the community who want to be supportive.

Providing this type of care and attention to your gluten-free customers may seem like a burden. But these considerations will differentiate you and your brand and provide significant value that equals loyalty, increased sales and abundant referrals. Training your staff to meet the needs of special diet customers also creates a culture of compassion that benefits your entire customer base and will reap long-term rewards to your business.


Gluten-free Regulations

The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) passed a rule in 2014 that requires manufacturers that wish to label their products “gluten free” to ensure that the products contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten and follow other guidelines about the use of ingredients derived from wheat, rye and barley. Manufacturers who do not comply with the ruling can face consequences from the FDA. While restaurant and foodservice providers are not specifically included in the ruling, the FDA encourages their compliance. If you offer prepared foods, you must minimize the likelihood of inadvertently serving gluten to your gluten-free customers by following specific protocols. The Beyond Celiac GREAT Kitchens online course provides training on these processes and on minimizing the risks associated with ingredient sourcing.


Claire Baker is the director of communications and new media of Beyond Celiac. With an extensive and varied 20-year history in non-profit management, she joined the Beyond Celiac team in 2014 following her own celiac disease diagnosis in 2010.