It is estimated that one in one hundred people in the United Kingdom today suffer from Coeliac Disease. There is no cure and those living with the disease have to avoid gluten completely, for life. One percent of the population is 650 000 people, if they were to dine just once with friends in groups of 4 that would account for 2.6 million meals!
As well as those suffering with Coeliac Disease, there are large numbers of people who have gluten intolerance and therefore also avoid foods containing gluten: up to fifteen per cent of the population may have some degree of gluten sensitivity.
Many of those living with Coeliac Disease find eating out a difficult matter, and they and their friends are likely to choose, and to return to, a restaurant with clearly labelled gluten-free choices on the menu. It is very clear, therefore, that the gluten free market is potentially very lucrative.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a naturally present protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It can be found in any products containing these ingredients.
There are many naturally occurring gluten-free foods and it is not difficult, with some thought, to alter recipes to make them gluten-free. Fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, pulses, rice, cheese; the list of gluten-free food is huge.
The major source of gluten is wheat based products; these include cakes, bread, pizza, biscuits, pasta and pastry. Gluten-free flours are available, as are ready-made gluten-free products.
Ready meals, sausages, sauces and cereals can be hidden sources of gluten and the package must be carefully checked. Even drinks can contain gluten; beer, lager and stout are all problems. Suet may not be an obvious source of gluten, but it is usually coated in wheat flour and alternative fats need to be used in cooking.
By law, the words ‘gluten free’ can only be used for food which contains twenty parts per million, or less, of gluten.
As well as ensuring that food does not contain gluten in its ingredients, it is also important to prevent cross-contamination occurring in the kitchen. Surfaces should be washed down before gluten-free food is prepared on them. Separate dishes and utensils should be used. It is important that gluten-free food is fried in clean oil, not reusing oil which has previously fried foods containing gluten.
Education makes good business sense
The leading charity for people with Coeliac Disease, Coeliac UK, run courses designed to educate caterers about how to offer gluten free choices. They also have a system of accreditation whereby the charity will work with the restaurant to ensure they are meeting their standards and then award accreditation.
Considering that Coeliac UK believe that the UK hospitality business is missing out on £100 million per year, from customers with Coeliac Disease and their family and friends, making the effort to tap into this market could make good business sense.
Potential Problems and Solutions
Some restaurant owners are concerned about possible repercussions if food they label as gluten-free has inadvertently been contaminated with gluten and causes symptoms in a sensitive individual. If care is taken then the risk of this happening is minimal, however liability insurance will protect the caterer from potential costs arising from such a situation.
There is a specific insurance: product liability insurance, which is designed to protect against illness or injury arising from a product. It is not the case that making gluten-free food available on the menu will mean a higher level of insurance is necessarily required; in any restaurant the chances of contamination or deterioration of food and resulting ill-health make product liability insurance a potentially useful safeguard.
In the case of gluten, the amount of contamination needed to create a reaction is very small, and should a gluten-sensitive diner fall ill, it is likely to be extremely harmful to the reputation of the establishment, as well as leaving it open to litigation. Taking all possible care to avoid the need for such insurance is clearly of the highest importance; however, restaurant owners may wish to consult their insurance provider to discuss the need for additional cover. Training courses are available to help restaurant owners understand the practicalities of providing gluten-free meals.
Restaurants are not legally required to provide written allergy information for unpackaged food. However, should a diner inform the restaurant of a food intolerance and request advice, it is imperative the information given is correct. If the customer becomes ill due to eating a food they have been told is safe for them, then the restaurant could be sued.
The insurance discussed above can help protect against this, but taking every care that all workers are educated about possible risk foods, and aware of the dangers of cross contamination, is very important. Hygiene is of course of first importance for any food provider, not only in relation to gluten; there are many other foods which can trigger reactions in diners.
The Benefits of Gluten-free Catering
The benefits of attracting gluten-free diners are obvious. Many sufferers of Coeliac Disease avoid eating out due to fear of accidentally ingesting gluten. If you can offer an attractive menu, in an establishment which they are confident understands the importance of the issue, you are likely to attract those avoiding gluten and their friends to become loyal customers. Coeliac UK’s estimate of £100 million of business illustrates the untapped potential lying in the gluten free market.
Article written by Evelyn Baxter