As many as 30 percent of American adults are looking to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets. It can be difficult to separate gluten-free fact from fiction, and myths about the perceived benefits of gluten-free foods abound.
No, a gluten-free brownie is not healthier than a gluten-containing one. Yes, increasing the amount of naturally gluten-free fruits, vegetables and lean protein in one’s diet probably will make a difference in health, energy and overall well-being.
As a store owner or manager, you can play an important role in setting the facts straight and helping those who need the gluten-free diet most—those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and a wheat allergy—live better, longer.
People with gluten-related disorders have differing needs, and if you are going to market to the growing number of diagnosed individuals following a gluten-free diet out of medical necessity, it is vital that you understand the many nuances of the gluten-free diet.
Now that we have a federal regulation spelling out the requirements for gluten-free labeling, the responsibility for safety in packaged foods sits with the manufacturer. But if you have a deli, lunch counter or prepared foods section, you will require specialized training and knowledge to keep gluten-free ingredients safe from package to plate.
“I want to keep my family safe,” noted Jennifer Raison, whose spouse has celiac disease, a serious, genetic autoimmune disorder. “When I order cheeses at the deli counter, I worry about the cutter, gloves and the counter itself. I know there is gluten-free deli products, but I worry about cross-contact when the staff are getting them for me, especially at busy times.”
Sourcing gluten-free ingredients is the first step in preparing any gluten-free dish. Gluten-free flours and grains are especially high risk for coming into contact with wheat grain in the field, during transport, milling or packaging. They must be labeled gluten-free in order to be safe for someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. An estimated 70 percent of commercially grown oats contain an unsafe level of wheat kernels. And the millet supply may not be much better.
Once you have confirmed that your ingredients are gluten-free, you will need to understand how to properly store, segregate, prepare and deliver your prepared meals. Some cookware can be used for both gluten-free and gluten-containing food preparation if carefully cleaned and sanitized in between uses. Other items, like colanders and toasters must be dedicated for gluten-free use. Slicers can be cleaned, but it may not be feasible to do so effectively with customers waiting in line for their orders.
Special areas of concern in the retail setting are condiments, which can be easy to overlook. Regular breadcrumbs can spread to gluten-free bread if you are double-dipping knives in mayo or spreading butter. Even this small amount of gluten cross-contact is enough to cause an autoimmune reaction in someone with celiac disease. This type of exposure could put them at risk for long-term health consequences like cancer.
It may sound daunting, but there are many tricks and tools that can save time and help to make your operations easier and more efficient. The uses of color-coded kitchenware and squeeze bottles are great options that minimize mistakes.
If you have an established gluten-free customer base, training and protocols will be well worth it since these customers become loyal to establishments that serve them safely. They will bring new customers to your door through social media and provide positive word-of-mouth marketing.
“The gluten-free marketplace has seen such an expansion in recent years, it’s plain good business sense for delis and other prepared food providers to know how to safely deliver gluten-free foods to their customers—especially those who have celiac disease or other medical necessity for it,” noted Paul Antico, Founder and CEO of AllergyEats, the largest national online guide to allergy-friendly restaurants. According to Antico, foodservice establishments that are properly trained in how to safely accommodate the celiac disease and gluten-free community often see a sales increase on the order of 8 to 10 percent. “The profit increase is even greater!” he added.
What kinds of resources exist to help you develop your protocols and train your staff? The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) offers a convenient online training program called GREAT Kitchens. This comprehensive five-module program delivers everything from providing an understanding of the gluten-free marketplace to confirming that your ingredients are gluten-free, to menu development, operational processes and customer communication. The program costs only $100 for a manager and that includes an extensive training manual that you can download and keep in your kitchen.
There are likely local resources that can help as well. Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, gluten-free expert and NFCA Scientific/Medical Advisory Council Member noted, “Just like doctors, registered dietitians (RD) tend to specialize and we rely on one another for referrals. To find a RD knowledgeable in celiac disease and the gluten-free lifestyle, ask your in-house supermarket RD to recommend a gluten-free expert. If you don’t have an in-house RD, contact a local celiac disease support group, as they have a pulse on local experts.”
Professional organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists may be able to help you identify a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist with whom you can consult. And don’t forget about your customers. If they have celiac disease, and are managing it appropriately, they are probably following these protocols at home.
If you have no deli counter but you demo gluten-free products, you’ll need to understand some basics. Gluten-free customers are used to paying a premium for their food. They like to sample new items to make sure that they taste good and have an appealing texture. Safe protocols and procedures need to be followed when providing gluten-free samples in your stores.
If you have operational weaknesses that preclude you from keeping gluten-free food safe, how should you communicate appropriately to those looking for gluten-free choices? The answer is simple: As thoroughly and honestly as possible.
Disclaimers with overly legalistic language are easy to overlook in the retail environment, which can be sensory overload for some. If you can verify your ingredients, place prominent signage stating that you use gluten-free ingredients in a shared prep space. This will let your customers make an educated decision about whether to purchase prepared items in your store. If you do prepare gluten-free foods in a shared prep space, use caution. Don’t bait and switch your customers by marketing gluten-free options just to have someone arrive hungry and leave with only a Kind bar and a bad impression.
If you are unable to provide a clean, safe gluten-free meal at your deli, lunch counter or prepared foods section, you can make your customers happy by providing high quality frozen meals or dried soups with a dedicated gluten-free microwave. Luckily, there are a lot of choices from pizza to burritos to lasagna. Your customers will appreciate that you acknowledge the severity of their condition and that you are taking steps to keep them safe.