The gluten-free trend has been on the radar for some time and been the subject of numerous articles in Prepared Foods and definitely in the coverage of Natural Products Expo West events for the past five years. For that matter, Expo West has been something of a home to the gluten-free movement, with this year being no exception, as a reading of this month's “New Product Trends” will attest.

Gluten-free has been a topic of spirited debate among trendcasters. For years, some contended gluten-free was such a niche market that it was hardly worth taking seriously. Others noted the 3 million American sufferers of Celiac Disease had precious few prepared food options on store shelves--and even fewer in restaurants. Counting Celiacs alone, that would be 3 million consumers in desperate need of conveniently prepared foods made in a facility without gluten.

An aside:  that 3 million count is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate, but the Center for Celiac Research places the number of those with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity at 18 million, roughly 6% of the U.S. population. This is solely those eating gluten-free as a necessity; gluten-free has also emerged as something of a celebrity diet trend, with Miley Cyrus and the world’s number-one men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, touting the virtues of dining without gluten. So, what might be the actual size of the gluten-free consumer base? Speaking at the National Restaurant Association Show 2012 in May, Beckee Moreland of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness noted some 30 million Americans eat gluten-free at least occasionally.

Technomic found a 61% growth in the number of gluten-free menu items in 2010-2011, and the aforementioned NRA Show had an entire gluten-free section, with such exhibitors as Udi’s, Homefree, Schär and Kinnikinnick, regulars at Natural Products Expos who are finding strong interest in gluten-free in the foodservice segment. However, big gluten-free restaurant news was not confined to the NRA Show: Domino’s announced a gluten-free pizza option and Chuck E. Cheese began a gluten-free test.

Such restaurants--indeed, any restaurant offering a gluten-free menu--must realize the urgency of maintaining a gluten-free back-of-house section. Otherwise, they could have all the allergen-free products they want, but a pizza slicer reused from a regular pizza to a gluten-free pizza without washing could lead to untold troubles. If any restaurant staff fails to understand this, a “gluten-free” menu may well have done more harm than good.