Operations, especially on college campuses, add gluten-free menu options

Facilities with annual purchases of $1 million or more are more likely to offer gluten-free options than those with lower annual purchases.

When Michele Wilbur, R.D., joined the staff of Cornell Dining four years ago, gluten-free options were something specially prepared for the rare student who’d been diagnosed with celiac disease. Today, Cornell University has a Gluten-Free Task Force, gluten-free bread available at every sandwich station, a retail outlet that sells primarily gluten-free items and classes on gluten-free cooking for the culinary staff.

All soup stocks are gluten free, and “if I have two options on [making] a particular dish, I’m choosing the gluten-free preparation,” says Wilbur, nutrition manager for the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y.

Demand for gluten-free choices “has at least doubled,” and it’s only going to grow, she says.

But don’t suggest to Wilbur that it represents a shift to healthier eating.

“I don’t really call it a wellness issue,” she declares. The relatively few students who really need those choices “do it to get better, not necessarily to be healthier.”

What’s happening, she says, is “some people put a halo around it,” equating gluten-free foods with healthier ones. For instance, some students buy 20 wheat-free cookies a day at Cornell’s gluten-free retail outlet. “The cookies have nearly 300 calories each,” laments Wilbur. “A cookie is a cookie is a cookie—it’s not going to be healthy for you just because it’s gluten free.”

Increased demand

With the general public demanding more wheat-free items, foodservices, and college operations in particular, have no choice but to respond with more options, even if misconceptions come into play. Nearly half (49%) of non-commercial foodservice facilities have added gluten-free alternatives in recent years in response to constituents’ health concerns, according to The Big Picture research.

The percentage for college services is a whopping 83%, making gluten-free additions one of the most common health accommodations within that segment.
Adding gluten-free options is the most common health-related action that non-commercial foodservice directors plan to take in the next 12 months. More than 38% of respondents say they intend to pepper their menus with more choices, compared with 34% who are looking to cut sodium and 33% who are planning to increase their whole-grain selections.

“It’s in vogue,” says Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining for Penn State University in University Park, Pa. She’d rather stress initiatives like serving more vegetables and fruits (No. 1 on the list of health efforts made in the past couple of years for the non-commercial market overall, at 84%, and the only action to top eliminating trans fats and gluten-free additions among colleges, at 91%).
Still, Penn State has installed self-service stations for gluten avoiders, complete with separate toasters and microwaves.

Doubling up

Several foodservice directors say they try to satisfy wheat avoiders, whether or not the aversion is based on food sensitivities, by providing selections that do double duty. “There is an obvious advantage to making new items both healthy and gluten free,” observes Kathy Egan, R.D., dining dietitian and nutritionist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

“We try to do two things at the same time, to appeal to two populations,” explains Rick Balfour of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich, a Creative Dining Services-managed account. “We might have something that’s vegan and gluten free.”
Sometimes that double benefit comes in the form of a simpler preparation—skipping the breading stage of a chicken recipe, for instance, and baking instead of frying.

Often it’s just a matter of getting into a gluten-free mindset, suggests Kuan Siew, food service director of the Hawken School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, an Aladdin Food Management account. One of the small private school’s specialties is a Hungarian stew. Now it’s made with cornstarch instead of flour.

“A number of recipes I’ve converted to be gluten free,” Siew says. “Most of what’s on the line is gluten free.” Yet he acknowledges that the department has received only a handful of notifications from students and faculty members reporting they have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance.

Challenges

K-12 schools have been much less active than colleges in embracing gluten-free choices, with only about a third (36%) of operators reporting they’ve added wheat-free options in recent years. That’s partly because schools require a medical diagnosis rather than a self-diagnosis before they regard a student as having a gluten intolerance.

“Before we can do anything, you need to get documentation from your doctor, and we can only do what they prescribe for you,” says Veronica Bush, food services supervisor for the Epping (N.H.) School District.

It’s necessary, she says, because “what I’m seeing is more parents using gluten as a behavior modification tool.” They claim the child is gluten intolerant, hoping the dietary change will enhance the youngster’s focus and temper unruly behavior.

Another dampening factor for operations is cost. Bush suffered sticker shock when she bought a case of gluten-free pizza shells for $70. She usually pays under $10 for a case of regular crusts.

Calvin College’s Balfour also encountered price hikes with gluten-free items. For example, he pays $4 to $5 per loaf for gluten-free bread, compared with “a dollar, maybe $1.25” for white or whole-wheat varieties.

Others noted that waste can increase because a minority of customers are opting for the gluten-free items, which translates into less turnover and more staleness or spoilage.

“It’d be very, very expensive to offer more gluten-free options,” says Cathy Conklin of the Urbandale (Iowa) School District. Instead, she looks for products that are gluten free per se instead of those specially formulated with wheat-flour substitutes. For example, she uses corn tortilla shells instead of flour ones and opts for unbreaded chicken breasts.

Even with the high price of purchased gluten-free products, Siew initially found them more economical than items produced in house “because of the labor.”

Now that the staff are sensitized to the gluten issue, they have learned to prep and cook without flour or other wheat-based ingredients as a matter of course, making in-house production more economical, says Siew.

Another benefit, he emphasizes, trumps cost considerations: By producing such foods from scratch, there’s less chance that a trace of wheat will inadvertently be included in a dish. That’s not always the case with a multi-ingredient item purchased in a ready-to-heat form, he says, citing the example of products flavored with soy sauce. “I didn’t know there’s only one brand that doesn’t have wheat in it,” he says.

Overall, 42% of non-commercial foodservice operators buy their gluten-free options from a vendor, compared with 22% who prepare the selections in house. But that could change as rising demand for wheat-free products triggers a step up in production and increased competition.

Indeed, it’s already happening, says Cornell’s Wilbur.

“Not only has the price gone down, but the quality has gone way up,” she says. 

Fast Facts

  • Facilities with annual purchases of $1 million or more are more likely to offer gluten-free options than those with lower annual purchases.
  • 60% of LTC/senior living operators do not offer gluten-free menu options.
  • Soups and salad dressings are the most likely gluten-free items to be prepared in house.
  • 42% of operators say they purchase the majority of their gluten-free items from an outside vendor. The main reason is a lack of customer demand, at 47%.