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Four Stars for Gluten-Free
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— April 16, 2016

Four Stars for Gluten-Free

By Beverly Burmeier
  • Eating out when you’re trying to avoid gluten is getting easier, but you still need to stay vigilant.
Four Stars for Gluten-Free

Fifteen years ago few people realized there was a need for gluten-free anything. Such products were primarily available in specialty stores. People with allergies or sensitivities to gluten were severely limited when dining out—no pizza, pasta, bread or beer. Few food service operators considered using alternative grains such as quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, corn, oats and buckwheat.

Now nearly 20% of Americans say they actively try to include gluten-free foods in their diets, while 17% say they avoid gluten-free foods, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. Those are significant percentages; according to Beyond Celiac (, formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness), fewer than 1% of Americans suffer from celiac disease, which requires a strict gluten-free diet. (An additional 6% may have some degree of sensitivity to gluten.)

While organizations such as Beyond Celiac have done a good job of educating food service providers about the importance of gluten avoidance for those with actual intolerances and sensitivities, the popularity of gluten-free (GF) goes well beyond medical necessity.

An Outsized Trend

Gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains, is the agent in flour that prevents baked goods from crumbling. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the small intestine when gluten is ingested. In gluten sensitivity, the reaction takes longer to occur and is generally less severe. “Since there is no validated diagnostic test for gluten sensitivity, we really don’t know how many people are affected or if gluten is even the trigger for their distress,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, certified natural chef and food consultant. 

Mark Lang, PhD, food marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, regards GF as a loosely based food trend, even a fad, for those people who choose GF options because of perceived healthfulness rather than from medical need.

“Eating fewer carbs from grain-based products when avoiding gluten might result in weight loss, but the benefits people think they get from GF are not real,” Lang says. “Whether consumers’ reasons for demanding more GF products are medically or nutritionally justified doesn’t really matter. Simply put, more consumers want more of these products.”

“The view that GF foods and beverages are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts is a major driver for the market,” Begun adds.

Jodi Ettenberg, celiac patient and author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook (Full Flight), has a different view of GF’s trendiness. “The frustrating thing for people with celiac disease is when consumers imply that gluten-free is a choice, and restaurants become less careful as a result of the perception,” she says.

Options Increase

In August 2013 the Food and Drug Administration ruled that GF foods couldn’t contain more than 20 parts of gluten per million. Some companies found it difficult to produce a variety of products both with and without gluten in the same facility, so they outsourced GF options to dedicated manufacturers. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts offers gluten-free muffins made off-site and sealed in plastic. Many GF bakery items like pizza crusts and buns are purchased from specialized manufacturers rather than being prepared onsite, according to Brad Thorn, senior food and beverage editor for Nation’s Restaurant News. 

It was the continuation of a pre-existing movement. In 2007 restaurants began adding GF options to their menus just as markets began filling shelves with similar products. According to the National Restaurant Association, adding such foods to their menus allows restaurants to attract a wider base of diners, whether patrons have celiac disease or food allergies, or just prefer additional choices. According to The NPD Group, a marketing services consultant, GF or wheat-free orders were part of more than 200 million restaurant visits in 2013.

“Achieving certified GF status is a huge operational undertaking for restaurants,” Thorn says. One of the biggest challenges in serving GF meals is preventing cross-contact in a busy kitchen. Gluten can hide nearly anywhere—a bit of flour dust, remnants in a fryer, a trace of wheat-based sauce on the grill or as an unsuspected ingredient in condiments.

That makes it crucial for restaurants to identify points of potential cross-contamination. “It’s important to treat it like a food allergy—using different utensils, knives, cutting boards, cooking vessels—to avoid cross-contamination, says Annika Stensson, the National Restaurant Association’s director of research communications. Kitchen equipment like fryers, grills and toasters can also be sources for cross-contact. GF ingredients must be stored away from gluten sources and a separate space dedicated for preparation of GF goods.

To protect consumers, preparers must adhere to consistent standards, use only fresh ingredients known to be free of gluten, and discard anything questionable. “Staff training is key to understanding the issues and following proper procedure,” Stensson says. The association offers a program called ServSafe Allergens to help food service professionals understand the details, and Beyond Celiac offers accreditation to restaurants through its Great Kitchens program.

Because of the challenges GF food preparation presents to restaurants and bakeries, a new category has appeared—gluten-friendly. Such food items may have minimal amounts of gluten but satisfy the psychological desire for people concerned about ingredients in their food. “A miniscule amount of gluten is okay for someone just avoiding gluten by choice,” Begun says, although it can be devastating for someone who has celiac disease.

“People feel better about dining at restaurants that they perceive as taking extra care to provide healthy meals,” Thorn notes. “And customers appreciate when a restaurant is
honest about who can safely eat their products.”

Staying Safe

“We live in a wheat-based culture, so anyone truly affected by gluten needs to make a life shift,” Ettenberg says. “It’s not just a matter of finding GF replacements for favorite items but of choosing foods that are naturally GF such as rice noodles and corn tortillas. Asian and Mexican cuisines use more alternative grains that can be safer to consume.” She adds, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions at restaurants regarding ingredients or preparation methods.”

Beyond Celiac vice president Jennifer North agrees. “Consumers with medical requirements can make dining out easier by knowing what questions to ask, visiting restaurants at off-peak times, calling ahead to check on menus and food preparation methods, and learning which foods are easier for a restaurant to prepare without gluten,” she says. If customers don’t speak up, food service operators may be confused about a particular patron’s needs or become frustrated when the customer asks for GF for part of a meal but later consumes something that is not GF. For the most part, North says, restaurants want to know if a meal requires special handling. (For help finding in GF-friendly restaurants, you can download an app via this; Beyond Celiac also provides information through their site at

Fortunately, there are many naturally GF foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat, legumes and nuts. Using these ingredients, chefs have plenty of options when creating dishes without a trace of gluten.

Whether gluten-free foods will continue to be a strong trend or will drift out of the mainstream remains to be seen, Lang says, noting, “Even though most food trends decline over time, consumer demand for cleaner, more natural foods means healthier eating overall.”

ET Recipe

Sesame-Coated Chicken Paillards

A paillard is the perfect way to cook chicken breasts,” says Charlyne Mattox, author of Cooking with Seeds (Da Capo). “You have to do a little work on the front end—pounding—but then cooking them only takes about two minutes each. Plus, because they are so thin and in the pan for such a short time, they stay tender. The sesame seeds give the paillards an extra-crunchy coating.”

4 small boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup toasted hulled white sesame seeds
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 tbsp olive oil, divided
4 heads little gem lettuce, leaves separated or 1 small head Bibb
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 Kirby cucumber, halved and sliced
3 tbsp fresh Meyer lemon juice

1. Working one piece at a time, with the flat side of a meat mallet, pound the chicken between 2 pieces of plastic wrap or a zip-top bag cut open on 3 sides, to 1⁄8” to 1/4” thick. Discard the plastic and sprinkle both sides of the paillards with the sesame seeds, pressing to help them adhere. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 30 seconds. Add 1 tbsp of the oil and heat for 10 seconds. Cook the paillards, in 4 batches, adding 1 tsp of oil to the sauté pan between each batch, until golden-brown on one side, 1 to 3 minutes. Turn and cook until cooked through, about 30 seconds (lower the heat if the pan becomes too dark).

3. Toss together the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, lemon juice and the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Divide the paillards between four plates and top with the salad.

Serves 4
Recipe from Cooking With Seeds: 100 Delicious Recipes for the Foods You Love, Made 
with Nature’s Most Nutrient-Dense Ingredients by Charlyne Mattox. Available from 
Da Capo Lifelong Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group ( 
Copyright © 2015

Toasted Sorghum with Shiitakes and Fried Eggs

Fried eggs make this a wonderful breakfast or brunch dish—but it’s a delicious lunch or dinner, too,” says Charlyne Mattox. “Sorghum—an ancient, gluten-free cereal grain with small, round seeds—maintains a slightly chewy texture when cooked. I highly recommend searching it out, but if you can’t find it in your local health-food market, use one cup of brown rice instead. Stirring the chia seeds in at the end, rather than cooking them in from the beginning, ensures that the mixture doesn’t become gummy.”

3 tbsp canola oil, divided
2 scallions, white and green parts separated, sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup long-grain brown rice
1/2 cup sorghum
2 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp toasted chia seeds
7 oz shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tsp soy sauce, plus more for serving
4 large eggs
1 avocado, sliced
Sriracha sauce and lime wedges, for serving

1. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add 1 tbsp of the oil and heat for 10 seconds. Add the scallion whites, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the brown rice and sorghum. Cook, stirring occasionally, until toasted and fragrant, 3 to 4cminutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to low, and gently simmer until the grains are tender, 50 to 55 minutes. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle the chia seeds on top of the grains. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork, incorporating the seeds into the grains.

2. Once you have sprinkled the chia seeds on the grains, heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the shiitakes and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are golden-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and soy sauce, season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a plate; reserve the skillet.

3. Heat the remaining tbsp of oil over medium heat in the skillet. Crack the eggs in the skillet, being sure to space them apart. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, covered, until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny, 2 to 4 minutes.

4. Serve the mushrooms and eggs over the grains, drizzled with a squeeze of Sriracha, and garnished with the scallion greens, avocado, and lime wedges.

Serves 4
Recipe from Cooking with Seeds: 100 Delicious Recipes for the Foods You Love, Made with Nature’s Most Nutrient-Dense Ingredients by Charlyne Mattox. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group ( Copyright © 2015

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