MRM Talking With: Cynthia Kupper, CEO of Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG)

Gluten-free food is one of the fastest growing market segments, making it a critical issue for restaurants to understand in order to better serve their clientele. This edition of Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine’s “Talking With” features  Cynthia Kupper, CEO of Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) discussing what restaurants need to know about gluten-free preparation and food safety. 

A registered dietitian, Kupper was diagnosed with celiac disease  more than 20 years ago. She left clinical practice  to serve as the executive director of GIG, growing the organization that was local in scope and national in heart to an international leader in the gluten-free community. GIG has worked with food manufacturers and food service organizations providing training and accreditation programs to certify more than 34,000 food products and hundreds of food service locations worldwide. 

What are some factors that have caused the interest in and need for gluten-free food?

Cynthia Kupper
Cynthia Kupper

People with medical conditions, such as celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, are the primary reason gluten-free (GF) foods are necessary. However the GF diet has also become a mainstream lifestyle for many people who feel wheat and gluten are less healthy for them and therefore wish to follow a diet without wheat. Others feel the diet improves their gut health, energy and overall well-being.

As a result of the interest in gluten-free options, the gluten-free food category grew 136 percent  from 2013-15, reaching $11.6 billion. Strong year-over-year growth continues as the percentage of consumers eating gluten-free foods for a variety of reasons continues to grow. 

Moreover, Mintel, a global market intelligence agency, published a report this year stating that one in five consumers who eat gluten-free foods is more likely to visit a restaurant that has a specific gluten-free menu. The top menu item claim is gluten-free, and it continues to show growth, according to the report.

What should restaurants/chefs know about gluten free offering when planning menus?

While the gluten-free trend is growing, restaurants need to be extremely careful with food preparation if they make gluten-free claims. When planning menus, it is imperative to be able to assess the gluten-free status of all ingredients and garnishes used in the dish. Fortunately, if ingredients are naturally GF and menus are planned with the most versatility using naturally GF dishes, one can achieve a fair variety of offerings.

The gluten-free food category grew 136 percent  from 2013-15, reaching $11.6 billion.

Once ingredients are verified as GF, close attention must be paid to the preparation and potential for cross contact and cross contamination. In my work with certifying restaurants through GIG’s GFFS (Gluten-Free Food Service) program, I have noted a number of simple precautions that restaurants can take to avoid cross contamination, such as not storing gluten-exposed pans above those used for gluten-free preparations and not cleaning surfaces with soap and water (which can spread gluten) instead of sanitizers.

Staff training on how to handle food to prevent cross contamination, proper preparation methods, and answering guest questions accurately is of critical importance because training can make or break a GF program. Mistakes, even if inadvertent, can have serious consequences, including patron illness, potential legal or regulatory action and damage to a restaurant’s reputation.

What are common customer requirements regarding gluten sensitivities restaurants should anticipate?

Customers require that the front-of-house staff can address their questions well, sharing accurate information about the menu items and preparation methods. Clear and consistent procedures provide assurance to guests that the food service knows what they are doing and will not compromise how the food is prepared. A big red flag for customers that leads to distrust in a restaurant is being asked whether they have celiac or if GF is a preference. This sends a clear message that the food will be handled differently if they do not have celiac and the true need for a GF meal is not taken seriously. Asking this type of question is inappropriate and puts a restaurant at risk. Consumers may not share with you their medical conditions, which truly is not the business of a restaurant. No decision on how food is prepared and served should be based on asking this type of question.

GF is always GF according to the FDA, which sets a clear guideline of less than 20 parts per million, and should always be handled appropriately to be able to use the label gluten-free. The FDA also treats items labeled as “gluten friendly” or “gluten sensitive” under the same standard as gluten-free, so labels of this kind do not relax the requirements for a food service.

What is gluten-free certification and why is it valuable for food service/restaurants?

Gluten-free certification sets standards for policies and procedures that food services will implement and follow to assure the safety of food items. It should include periodic site audits that assure compliance with the policies and procedures. Much like requirements set by a health department, GF certification requirements are designed to provide consistency in GF food safety no matter what type of food service is using the program. These standards can be used for all food sensitivities and provide the highest assurance to customers of the ability of the food services to meet their needs. Industry research shows that customers will pay well for this assurance.

What is the process involved for restaurants/food service to become certified?

Restaurants are required to document policies and procedures that meet the standards of the certification program. The food service staff must be trained. Internal and external audits, as well as management review for continuous improvement are important to the success of the program. A third-party food service certification program can provide the needed expertise and experience to help a restaurant or other food service environment offer proper training and establish and maintain appropriate standards.

Are there any barriers to certification?

GIG’s GFFS program is one that incorporates low to no cost solutions to being able to offer safe GF options. Of course, management must be involved and committed to the program for success. It is important to evaluate with a critical eye what is reasonable to do and what puts a restaurant at risk. The type of kitchen or service set up often contains unnecessary and simple to solve barriers, such as recognizing the need to place pasta at the end of a salad bar to avoid the potential for cross contaminating other food items.  Becoming a GF certified establishment is not an insurmountable ordeal—it is often comprised of simple steps regarding food placement and kitchen procedures that may not have been considered as you go about business as usual.  Third-party certification is useful in evaluating with a fresh eye the simple ways a restaurant can serve the needs of this ever-growing GF consumer base.

Why are there no established government standards and is that changing?

The FDA has said that food services should adopt the GF regulations GF products follow, but has offered little support in how to do that. This is an area where third-party food service certification programs can provide the support needed to establish appropriate standards and procedures.

What are challenges restaurant face regarding gluten-free and other food allergen and safety issues?

The main challenges are training and having standard practices, policies and procedures for the safe handling, identification, and customer interaction related to GF and allergens. Training of both front-of-house and back-of-house is vital as are written practices. If there is ever an issue, having practices (training, procedures, etc.) documented, rather than just in your head, will help demonstrate that adequate precautions were in place.