Rising to the gluten free challenge

05 April, 2016 by
Aoife Boothroyd

It’s no secret that the demand for gluten-free menu items is larger today than it has ever been. Coeliac Australia estimates that one million Australians are currently following a gluten-free diet, and smart foodservice operators and restaurateurs have risen to the challenge by developing dishes that far exceed the stock standard steak and salad offering.

Despite the ever growing popularity of the segment, there is still quite a bit of confusion in the foodservice space surrounding the definition of the term ‘gluten-free’, what it encompasses, and how to best prepare and store gluten-free products.

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Cathy Di Bella, project officer at Coeliac Australia says that it is this confusion that has resulted in the development of the Gluten Free Accreditation Program.

“The main questions that we get from foodservice professionals are about safe preparation and that is part of why we developed the standard,” says Di Bella. “The standard covers everything from having a dedicated deep fryer to placing gluten-free items on the top shelf in the oven. Also things like ensuring that if you’re buying in gluten-free [products], you make sure that you have separated those products and have dedicated and specific utensils so that there is no cross contamination. But it’s the terminology that actually comes up most.

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Under the current Australian standard, Di Bella says that only two claims can legally be made in terms of the presence of gluten in dishes: gluten-free (no detectable gluten) and low gluten (containing less than 200ppm).

“Gluten-free means coeliac friendly; 99 percent gluten-free and all of those other terms that you see quite regularly are not actually legal terms that can be used. The only terms that can legally be used are gluten-free or low gluten, and of course low gluten is no good for someone with coeliac disease – just like you can’t have a meal that’s almost vegetarian.”

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The standard, which is still in its testing phase, comprises three main components:

  • Source: ensuring that all of the ingredients and inputs are free from gluten.
  • Menu: ensuring that everything on the plate is free from gluten and all equipment and ingredients used are stored and prepared separately.
  • Communication: ensuring clear lines of communication from the kitchen to the floor to prevent any potential preparation or serving issues.

A main component that will underpin the Standard is a TAFE course that Di Bella says should be launching in 2016. The course will be presented as a two unit module – not too dissimilar in nature to that of an RSA – and will be recognised throughout Australia.

A trial of the Standard is taking place at three McCafe locations in NSW’s Hunter Valley region, which Di Bella says have performed exceptionally well.

“They [McCafe] put all our procedures in place. This included training and testing of staff, a dedicated gluten-free bench and the use of blue gloves for gluten-free food handling. Communication was also really important, so anytime there was something that was gluten-free, it had its own tray and/or bag if it was takeaway, and everything was colour coded red so, behind the scenes, it was easy to identify a gluten-free product because there were physical indicators all the way through.

“It has been really good. The feedback from McDonald’s has been exceptional and the sales have been consistent throughout.”

Di Bella says the combination of visibility, traceability and education at all levels are key to catering to the gluten-free market.

“At the end of the day having all your staff trained is so important. If you’ve got a chef that is really clued in and they have everything out the back right, and then you’ve got a customer that’s asking someone front of house about their gluten-free offering and they say, ‘we can do something without potatoes, or we can do something without rice,’ you think, ‘they’ve got no clue’, so it’s about education throughout the whole establishment; it’s not just the chefs that need to be involved.”

Learning the foundations

Jason Hannah, executive chef at the William Blue College of Hospitality Management’s restaurant, William Blue Dining says that learning to cater for people with dietary requirements, including gluten-free diners, is one of the core competencies that culinary students must achieve during their studies. It’s for this reason that the menu at William Blue Dining is almost completely adaptable for those following a gluten -free diet.

“The menu was designed that way deliberately,” says Hannah. “We have obviously seen quite a high demand not only for gluten-free, but also for lactose-free, vegetarian and vegan dishes. But gluten-free was really the kicker because we have so many ingredients that have wheat in them,” he says.

“We really set out to make sure that the gluten-free options on the menu were really quite wide, so we could combine both the theoretical and practical sides of dietary requirements for students in a live setting. That way they can physically see how to change dishes to give them an option of being gluten-free.”

Hannah says that William Blue students must learn how to manage any risk of cross contamination by documenting, recording and showcasing how to correctly manage dietaries in a practical setting. This includes the use of heavy duty plastic containers – all of which must be itemised and labelled, along with separate preparation areas, and exceptionally high standards of cleanliness and communication throughout the kitchen.

Although the strength of the gluten-free segment has been growing quite rapidly over recent years, Hannah says that some dietaries are still a relatively new concept to the foodservice sector.

“You know, lactose intolerance has been around for a long time but you’re only really seeing it come to the forefront of menus now. When I started as an apprentice, if a vegetarian came in, that would only be once every three months.

“In my previous role as head chef at Delicado, we actually had a gluten-free menu, as well as a vegetarian and vegan menu, and our standard menu. They were actually all individual menus just because of the demand of the clients.  Obviously most hospitality operators want to take everyone’s business because if you start to exclude people with particular dietaries, then you could potentially be losing up to 50 percent of your client base. So the idea that we could incorporate that at William Blue Dining and at the same time teach the students was just a perfect marriage.

“You know these students are going to be the future, so we want to have them set up to understand that whether it’s for religious, cultural or dietary needs, you need to have a blended menu that can suit all your customers.”

Catering to demand

Pat Stobbs, country business manager for Nestl Professional Oceania says that the growth of the gluten-free segment in both the retail and foodservice sectors is showing no signs of slowing down. Nestl launched its Nestl Professional gluten-free range for the foodservice sector in 2005 and has seen significant growth year on year ever since.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in sales and we’ve continued to expand the portfolio,” says Stobbs. “I think we’ve launched about 35 products, and about one-third of our entire dry product range is now gluten-free.”

Stobbs says that Nestl originally launched the range in response to demand from the aged care sector. Back then, Stobbs says that the company saw the gluten-free sector as a very specific, niche channel, however now it has grown to become something of a movement, and has well and truly entered the mainstream foodservice market.

Today the Nestl Professional range covers several categories, the most popular being desserts, soups, stocks and gravies. Nestl Professional has also launched its Gluten Free Toolkit which comprises tips and tricks for preparing gluten-free food items, as well as information on the growth of the segment.

“For a chef, managing a kitchen and having to cater to the needs of either reduced gluten or gluten-free is a real challenge. It’s not as easy as having a gluten-free product, it’s about ensuring that product stays gluten-free throughout the cooking process, and how those ingredients and products are handled next to those that contain gluten. That’s not so easy,” says Stobbs.