June 20/New York/Bloomberg -- Dunkin’ Donuts is poised to beat McDonald’s Corp. and Starbucks Corp. in introducing the fast-food industry’s first gluten-free pastries nationwide.

The coffee and breakfast chain owned by Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. will sell gluten-free cinnamon-sugar doughnuts and blueberry muffins across its U.S. stores this year, Stan Frankenthaler, the company’s executive chef, said in an e-mail.

“We recognize the importance of providing our guests with many options, including alternative choices for people with food and dietary restrictions,” he said. The pastries, to be sold at participating shops, are packaged separately to avoid contamination from other foods that contain wheat flour.

Gluten-free foods may be the next trend for restaurant chains and coffee shops as they try to entice customers and increase sales with healthier items -- even though wheat-free does not necessarily mean fewer calories. Domino’s Pizza Inc. has gluten-free crusts, while Starbucks is considering creating gluten-free items after it bought a bakery that sells organic breads last year, said Linda Mills, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based company.

“The number of people who think they benefit from going gluten-free is growing,” Nancy Childs, a food marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview. Gluten-free foods are not only consumed by people with celiac disease, she said.

“People feel that they are choosing a healthier alternative” when they buy gluten-free fare, she said.

Those with celiac disease can’t eat gluten, the protein in wheat, rye and barley. The autoimmune disorder affects about one out of every 133 Americans, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center’s website.

Dunkin’, known for its carbohydrate-dense foods including bagels, doughnuts and muffins made with wheat flour, tested the gluten-free breakfast pastries in locations in Massachusetts earlier this year. The company was “pleased with the results” and is now selling the items in shops in the Hartford, Conn,, area, Frankenthaler said.

The new items are not always lower in calories than other baked goods sold by Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Brands. The wheat-free doughnut has 320 calories, while a glazed doughnut has 260 calories. The gluten-free blueberry muffin has 400 calories versus 460 for the standard version and 410 for a reduced-fat one.

Even so, a gluten-free label may lure customers and help boost sales, according to data from researcher Nielsen. U.S. sales of items labeled gluten-free were $19.7 billion in the year ended May 11, topping revenue for items identified as cholesterol-free, multigrain or high-fiber, the data show.

The suggested prices are $1.89 for Dunkin’s gluten-free doughnuts and $2.39 for muffins.