Awareness of coeliac disease (allergic to gluten) is at an all-time high. An estimated one in every 100 Brits suffers from the condition, the symptoms of which can include nausea, bloating, incontinence and, in rare cases, anaemia and hair loss.
However, while many customers who order gluten-free options do so because they suffer from coeliac disease, almost half of Brits who follow a gluten-free diet do so as a lifestyle choice.
In fact, a recent survey by research group Mintel reported that more than 30% of customers eating gluten-free or other ‘free-from’ foods chose to because it made them feel ‘better’ or ‘healthier’.
A marginally smaller percentage said they chose those foods because it added variety to their diets, while only 10% said it was because they had been diagnosed with an allergy.
Many people choose to eat free-from or gluten-free food for health reasons, such as improving cholesterol levels, promoting digestive health and increasing energy levels, according to Matthew Grant, sales and marketing director of the menu management app Kafoodle.
He claims: “It can also help reduce your risk of heart disease, certain cancers and other health-related conditions, like diabetes.”
Whether these assertions stand up scientifically is another question. A recent survey of gluten-free products by advice website Consumer Reports revealed that gluten-free foods varied heavily when it came to nutrition because many gluten-free foods weren’t enriched or fortified with nutrients such as folic acid or iron.
“It is essential that [coeliac sufferers] have a variety of tasty, gluten-free foods to enjoy,” says nutritionist Dr Glenys Jones.
“However, while gluten-free be-came a big food trend in 2015, the vast majority of individuals have no problem digesting gluten and, therefore, do not need to consume gluten-free foods, which can be expensive, more calorific and lower in fibre than regular varieties.”
Another problem with gluten-free catering appears to be that, while the number of diners who demand it is growing, gluten-free dishes are still seen as unappealing to a majority of consumers.
“Gluten-free dishes have a higher-than-average association with being seen as unappealing,” says Helena Childe, senior foodservice analyst at Mintel. “The other main associations — bland and expensive — are also negative, suggesting that buying into this popular term risks alienating mainstream diners.
“Accordingly, only 5% (of respondents to a survey by Mintel) see this as a label worth paying for.”
Despite questions surrounding the supposed health benefits of the diet for those without coeliac disease and the trend’s potentially ‘unappealing’ public image, the public’s appetite for gluten-free seems virtually insatiable.
The total market for gluten-free food in the UK was estimated to be worth approximately £365m in 2014 and is expected to rise another 50% by 2019.
“Whether it is a lifestyle choice or not is beside the point,” says Mark McCulloch, chief executive officer of marketing and branding company We Are Spectacular.
“The customer base for gluten-free options is now millions strong and you could have an advantage if you fly the gluten-free flag high. Just
look at Tesco — it ran a Christmas TV advert where a family was out shopping for their friend who likes to eat gluten-free.
“And Greggs has just claimed thousands of column inches by announcing they will be offering gluten-free options in their fight to stay relevant as consumer needs change.”
However, while 62% of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser (PMA) readers who were quizzed in a recent poll believed it was necessary to cater for gluten-free customers, research by Knorr indicates that almost one third of operators don’t offer gluten-free dishes on their menus.
“Pubs, especially the larger pub chains, are falling short of other food outlets in offering gluten-free alternatives on their menus,” says Grant. “They are effectively losing out on business from a growing percentage of people.”
Last year, celebrity chef Phil Vickery told the PMA he believed the “ignorance and arrogance” of certain chefs meant many gluten-free diners were being given “lip service” instead of being treated as valued customers.
“My view is this — if you’re a coeliac, you’ll bring 10 of your mates to a pub because you know you can eat there,” he said at the time. “And looking beyond that — you can serve gluten-free beer. That’s great, because all they can drink is cider.”
The PMA also reported late last year that big pub chains, in particular, were failing to take advantage of the burgeoning free-from food market.
Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, director of the Free-From Awards, adds: “There are those pubs — the gastropubs — that get it, but others just don’t and they’re missing out on thousands of customers.
“You have to look too far and too wide to find a pub that has a good range of, if any, free-from options. A lot of free-from people don’t eat out at the pub because they don’t think that pubs understand what they want.”
Adding gluten-free options to your menu may have many benefits, but these can be discredited if they’re not implemented in a safe way.
For instance, ensuring there’s no cross-contamination in the kitchen and making sure your outlet is compliant with EU Food Information to Consumers Regulations, which came into force on 13 December 2014. Once those two points are covered, it’s just a case of ensuring people know you sell safe gluten-free food.
To ensure a very smooth gluten-free operation, McCulloch adds: “Have a gluten-free champion in your team who knows all of the facts, feels passionately about it and can spearhead the project. And talk to your customers — ask them what they would like to see on the menu.”
Gluten-free events are also a potential moneymaker, he claims. “For instance, [an operator could] start putting on ‘Wheat-free Wednesdays’ and create demand on a night that may be lacking slightly by attracting customers and groups that may be interested in this offer.”
For catering consultant Ali Carter, the fact that more operators aren’t tapping into the gluten-free market is astounding.
“People with allergies tend to be very vocal on social media,” she adds. “Sites such as gluten-free living (@gfliving) and Allergy UK (@AllergyUk1) have a loyal following who shout loudly when they find a venue that happily accommodates gluten-free and other allergies.”
Carter believes adopting a strong social media strategy when it comes to marketing your gluten-free offer is fundamental.
“Sharing mouth-watering photos of gluten-free dishes on Twitter using hashtags such as #glutenfree, #coeliac and #foodallergy will soon get you into streams of influential tweeters,” she says. Adding and sharing recipes and menus on Facebook or using Facebook advertisements could also prove to be a wise plan of action.
But how can chefs and operators who have traditionally stayed away from gluten-free catering adapt their procedures to cater for this new
“Just a few small adjustments to your normal dishes could make them gluten-free,” Carter says.
“For instance, using corn flour to thicken sauces and stews rather than normal (wheat) flour and keeping a range of gluten-free breads, cakes and pastry in the freezer to call on as and when the need arises — they defrost in seconds in the microwave with no deterioration in quality — instantly makes your existing menu more accessible.”
However, when experimenting with gluten-free catering, chefs need to be wary of cost, she warns.
“With gluten-free flour and [other ingredients such as] xanthan gum (the binding agent that replicates the actions of gluten when baking) running at approximately two or three times the cost of ordinary products, one needs to keep a careful eye on GP,” she says.
But if the final product is of excellent quality, the consumer will not mind paying a slightly higher price if they are assured their allergy has been catered for.
“This also means advertising on your menu how you cook products,” she says. “Do you, for example, have a separate preparation area? Do you have separate fryers, utensils and serving plates?
“If you do and you shout about it, you will find you are very quickly going to build a reputation as an allergy-friendly venue.”