Gluten-free trend grows

Cost, availability frustrate operators, while cross-contamination hinders self-preparation.

Leanne Fader, director of food and nutrition services for Three Rivers Health, a small community hospital in Three Rivers, Mich., has all the relevant numbers pertaining to gluten-free in her hospital.

“We are a rural hospital with 400 employees,” she explains. “[Only] 20 are expressing interest in gluten. Of those 20, only one has a true allergy to gluten. The others have just heard that you will feel better if you go gluten-free.”

Despite the seeming lack of demand from her clientele, Fader’s department still is prepared to satisfy the need. Gluten-free bread, rolls and wraps are available at the deli bar. Staff have been educated about gluten so that they can answer customers’ questions and, Fader notes, “we try to make our gravies, sauces and soups gluten-free.”

Fader’s responses seem to sum up how non-commercial foodservice operators view the gluten-free issue. Many are seeing a growing demand from customers who in many cases don’t have celiac disease or even an intolerance to gluten, and the majority are taking steps to serve that customer base.

According to The Big Picture survey, 66% of operators industry-wide are providing gluten-free options for customers. The percentage is highest in the college market, where 94% of operators either prepare gluten-free items in-house or purchase gluten-free options from outside vendors. In hospitals, the number is 79%, and in long-term care/senior living the figure is 51%.

Only in school foodservice is the percentage in the minority—46%—but even in this market the percentage is growing.

Brandon Valley School District, in South Dakota, is seeing an increasing need for gluten-free options.

“In past years I only had one or two students needing gluten-free foods,” says Gay Anderson, Brandon Valley’s foodservice director. “This year we are at 14 diets requiring gluten-free.” Anderson attributes the growth in part to better diagnoses of people with gluten tolerance issues.

Billy Reid, foodservice director for Salida Union School District in California, agrees with Anderson, although he adds that the demand hasn’t been great.

“We keep some products on hand to be able to accommodate the few customers who request it,” says Reid.

When it comes to providing gluten-free foods, most operators purchase the majority of their items from outside vendors. Overall, of those survey respondents who provide gluten-free options for customers, 63% say they buy the majority of their items from vendors. The percentages are highest in schools and hospitals, at 73% and 77%, respectively, and lowest in B&I and long-term care/senior living, at 47% and 53%, respectively.

The main reasons operators give for not making items in-house are lack of demand (42%) and lack of space to prevent cross-contamination (35%). In schools, hospitals and long-term care/senior living, lack of demand is the major driver, with 65% of schools, 46% of hospitals and 67% of long-term care/senior living listing this answer.

In the college segment, however, where 41% of operators say they make the majority of the gluten-free items they serve, 77% of operators who buy most of their items from vendors say it is lack of kitchen space that drives their decisions.

“The main reason behind not making our own products is cross-contamination of products,” says Dean Messina, assistant director of dining services at SUNY-Fredonia in New York. “We would need to maintain a gluten-free facility, and because of our size and space available that is not possible.”

“We do not have a safe space in the kitchen that we can designate for gluten-free cooking,” notes Shayna Newman, patient services manager for St. Alexius Medical Center in suburban Chicago. “When we heat gluten-free items, we use foil and specific pans for those foods.”

Cost and availability also frustrate operators who buy gluten-free goods.

“Our biggest issue has been, and continues to be, availability from our broadline vendors,” says Richard Plasencia, executive chef, nutrition care services, at South Miami Hospital in Florida. “We see numerous great new products at food shows that would assist us. But these products, nine times out of 10, are special order items, often hindering our ability to react to real-time patient needs.”

Plasencia and Newman both say they tend to avoid their normal vendors when looking for gluten-free foods, instead shopping in local specialty stores to meet their needs.

Fredonia’s Messina adds that vendors often require minimum purchase orders of at least $500. “The majority of the items we purchase are in retail packaging and very little come in bulk or institutional packaging,” he says, making such minimums difficult to reach.

When operators do prepare their own gluten-free items, soups and sauces tend to be the items most often made. 

Gluten-free or no?

Sixty-five percent of operators say they offer gluten-free items for customers. Of the operators who do offer gluten-free goods, 63% say they buy the majority of these items from outside vendors. College & university operators (94%) are most likely to have gluten-free foods available, while schools (46%) are least likely to do so.

  • 34% do not offer gluten-free foods
  • 24% prepare most of our gluten-free items in-house
  • 42% purchase most gluten-free items from outside vendors

gluten free toast

Gluten-free foods

Among the operators who said they prepare some gluten-free items in-house, soups and sauces are the items most frequently made. 

gluten free foods

What's next?

Most operators expect the gluten-free movement to have the most impact on their operations over the next couple of years. The majority of operators in every segment cited gluten-free as one of the trends to watch, with 83% of college operators identifying this trend. The trend most cited by school and long-term care operators is reducing sodium, with 81% and 59%, respectively, choosing this trend.  

 TotalB&IC&USchoolsHospitalsLTCSenior Living
Reducing sodium59%50%42%81%57%59%60%
Reducing/Eliminating HFCS42%39%40%36%53%36%44%
Reducing meat meals39%58%45%33%43%30%35%
None of the above7%8%6%4%9%12%4%


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