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Gluten-free items seem to be everywhere at this year's National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, which kicked off its four-day run today in Chicago.
Pasta? Yes. Bread? Absolutely. Snacks? You betcha.
As a growing number of restaurant guests have made it clear that they want—even demand—menu items and ingredients that are free of gluten, operators have increasingly created or acquired these types of products.
In a report this year, global information company NPD Group reported that nearly 30 percent of adults said they were cutting down on or avoiding gluten. That's up from about 25.5 percent three years earlier.
NPD and many others making predictions for this year's top culinary trends saw gluten-free as one of them for both limited- and full-service eateries. Chefs participating in the NRA's annual "What's Hot" survey chose gluten-free cuisine as the No. 8 overall trend.
Gluten consists of a variety of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and related grains. It gives elasticity to dough that helps create bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, sauces, and more.
Less than 1 percent of Americans have a serious reaction, called celiac disease, if they eat something with gluten. As many as 6 percent more have gluten sensitivity that causes less severe reactions, while millions of others choose to go gluten-free for other reasons.
"Gluten-free is a hot trend, not because of an increase in celiac disease, but more on losing weight," says Joy Dubost, the NRA's director of nutrition and healthy living. "It became popular when a few movie stars removed gluten from their diets to lose weight."
She notes that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration will soon release regulations on what packaged goods can be called gluten-free, "and that will trickle over to restaurants," including matters such as cross contamination from airborne flour.
Operators need to consider that and many other issues involving both the front and back of the house if they want to safely offer gluten-free items, says Beckee Moreland, director of gluten-free industry initiatives for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
"There is a lot of misinformation about this," says Moreland, a speaker during a Tuesday NRA Show educational session, "The Top 8 Myths about Gluten-Free Menus."
Still, she's been pleased by the decisions of a growing number of restaurants to add gluten-free items. "Any time you can be more inclusive, that's awesome."
Three of the NRA's seven Food and Beverage Innovation (FABI) award winners showcased at the show are gluten-free: Edison Grainery's organic quinoa pasta, a chocolate mini tart from Hail Merry Snacks, and Kiki's Gluten Free Foods' SpinachFeta pockets.
One gluten-free item at the NRA Show hasn't been introduced yet. Barilla America Inc. has a limited amount of its new gluten-free penne pasta, and Consulting Chef Bruno Wehren is cooking only a small amount at a time so that it might last the entire show.
The gluten-free pasta, which had been in development for four years, is expected to be available starting in the fall.
Wehren acknowledges that he was unsure how the new product would taste, but "I was surprised," considering that it is not made with wheat or soy flour, he says. Instead, its ingredients are white and yellow corn and rice.
Many smaller companies are exhibiting gluten-free food. Some are in the new Alternative Bitestyles pavilion that also includes allergen-friendly and low-sodium items.
Denver-based Udi's, which supplies gluten-free items to Red Robin, Donatos, and other restaurants, offers bread, buns, pizza crusts, muffins, snacks, and more. The bread's ingredients include brown rice and tapioca.
Silverland Bakery has been an exhibitor at the NRA Show for 30 years, and the Chicago company features several gluten-free items, such as a rich brownie. Founder Athena Uslander says the company hopes to move to a new facility soon that has a dedicated space to make gluten-free products.
1-2-3 Gluten Free, of Orange, Ohio, is showing its line of 17 allergen-free baking mixes. The company was started nine years ago by Kimberlee Ullmer, one of six members of her family to have celiac disease.
It began, she says, when her niece, who also has the disease, wanted pigs in a blanket like other kids. "I worked in the kitchen and developed a dry mix and sent that along for her mother (Ullmer's sister) to make," she says. More easy-to-make items are being planned.
There are even mobile apps, such as the one from Find Me Gluten Free of Encinitas, California, to find restaurants with gluten-free items. The company's database has 30,000 listed restaurants and gets 200,000 unique visitors each month and 600 new users a day.
NRA Show Grows
As if walking the many miles of exhibit space on the third level of the McCormick Center's north and south buildings wasn't enough in recent years, increased demand by exhibitors caused the association to open up an additional floor for this year's show.
As a result, the show didn't sell out of space like 2012's event, even though it has 2,000 exhibitors, up 5 percent over last year.
Show attendance is projected at 60,000.
For more updates on this year's NRA Show, check back with QSRmagazine.com, or follow us at @QSRmagazine.
By Barney Wolf