Gluten-free has its day, and restaurants respond

Adriene Hill Apr 11, 2013

Gluten-free has its day, and restaurants respond

Adriene Hill Apr 11, 2013

Eating gluten-free was once the domain of people with actual allergies — people with celiac disease, for whom a bit of gluten can spell all sorts of unpleasant problems. But today, going gluten-free is all the rage for a whole lot of us.

And restaurants are piling on board.

One of the very early adopters of a gluten-free menu is Fresh Brothers Pizza in Southern California.  It’s been serving gluten-free pizza since 2008, the year Adam Goldberg started the business with his wife, Debbie. “It’s funny,” says Debbie, “when we first started offering the gluten-free menu, people were like, ‘what’s gluten’?”

(For those of you wondering the same thing, gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains. So eating gluten-free means no flour or regular crust.)

A gluten-free pizza is an idea that strikes some pizza fans as a little off. “They just can’t comprehend the concept of a pizza without flour,” says Adam. But flourless pizza is, every day, a little less incomprehensible, even when it costs a few bucks more than regular pizza. “Since 2008,” says Adam, “we’ve seen gluten free sales literally grow on a weekly to monthly basis.” 

And more and more restaurants are catching on. Going gluten-free is going mainstream. Domino’s has a gluten-free pizza. Dunkin Donuts is testing gluten-free baked goods.

“What we’ve seen from a trend perspective is that some Hollywood stars had decided to cut gluten or even wheat out of their diet and they’ve lost weight,” says Joy Dubost, the director of nutrition at the National Restaurant Association, “and it has sort of become a buzz as a way to lose weight.”

The gluten-free “diet” is hot. On the list of top restaurant trends, “gluten free items” is number one with the fast food industry. “People are equating gluten-free with being nutritious,” says Dubost, “and I’m a registered dietician and I do not advocate for a gluten-free diet unless you have a reason to be on that diet.”

But Dubost’s advice doesn’t seem to be stopping much of anyone. “In our latest data, which takes us up to the end of January, we have 30 percent of all adults saying they are trying to cut out or remove gluten from their diet,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at the consumer research firm NPD Group.

That’s one in three of us. 

Balzer stresses that doesn’t mean that all those people are actually eating gluten-free. But, he says, “their interest in this has been growing.”

All that flirting with gluten-free makes it attractive for restaurants.

But it can be a bit of a rub for people like Amy Phillips, who has celiac disease, and has to avoid gluten for medical reasons. “It’s mostly a blessing that it’s more popular,” says Phillips. More trendy means more choices.

But not everyone takes it quite as seriously as Fresh Brother Pizza does, where Amy is sharing a gluten-free pizza with her son. When she tells waiters at some other restaurants that she has to eat gluten free, she can sense skepticism, she says. “Sometimes you can tell they really think it’s something like a low-carb diet, that it’s kind of a trend.  And I have to stress that I’m very allergic.”

Domino’s “gluten-free” free pizza for example — is for the trend followers. Not Amy. The company makes clear that people with celiac disease NOT chow down. It is cashing in on the fad, rather than any allergy need.

Have you changed how you eat? If so, which lifestyle choice made/makes you feel your best? Vote in our poll here.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.