“Free-from” foods might be the fastest growing sector of the retail market, but foodservice is lagging far behind, writes Barbara Collins.
One in 100 of the Irish population are coeliac, according to the Coeliac Society. That means nearly 50,000 people in this country have to avoid wheat or risk becoming ill. Gluten-free chef Michael McCamley was diagnosed with coeliac disease a number of years ago. He says gluten is hidden in many types of food.
“The more obvious ones are sausages, burgers, soups and sauces. However it’s also found in frozen chips, white pepper, salad dressings, soy sauce, chocolate and ice creams to name a few. Many drinks also contain gluten, so people need to be aware of that.”
No wonder many coeliacs say they find eating out such a nightmare that they would rather stay at home just to be sure of what’s in their food. There are signs of change though. The pizza chains Dominos and Pizza Express have both recently introduced gluten-free options on their menus, as have Carluccio’s and TGI Fridays. These, however, are fairly big players. What about the several thousand independently-owned hotels, restaurants and cafes dotted throughout the country? Adrian Cummins from the Restaurant Association Ireland says gluten-free is starting to become a huge issue.
“More than 10% of customers are now asking for gluten-free items on menus,” says Adrian.
Derek Thompson set up an organisation called Gluten Free Ireland after his wife Tina was diagnosed. They have compiled a list of where to eat out safely.
“In our opinion, the best counties are Wexford, Cork, Waterford, Kerry and Kilkenny and around Dublin, where the general need to provide gluten free food has been augmented by demand from foreign visitors.
“Galway is very good and in Northern Ireland the situation has improved vastly over the last two to three years, but in Carlow, Cavan, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon and Westmeath we are still in single figures for anyone searching for a gluten free eating out venue,” says Derek.
[quote_box_center]Wheat flour is a real problem as it can stay airborne for up to twenty four hours[/quote_box_center]
He told me of an experience he had in a coffee shop in Enniskillen recently where his wife was pointed to Mars Bars Krispies when she asked for a gluten free cake. They were clearly labelled as gluten-free goods baked on site. They were also placed beside cakes containing wheat. Tina declined the cake but even if it had truly been gluten free, she didn’t think the staff knew to lift them with different tongs.
Both Derek and Michael think the industry is missing out on valuable business.
“If a family with a coeliac member is going out to celebrate at a restaurant or hotel, and there is no gluten free offering, they risk losing all of those covers in one go,” says Derek.
He says their followers are very loyal when they find a place where they are accommodated, but are scathing about those where they are misled and have a meal that makes them sick.
Michael McCamley says kitchens need to be very careful to avoid cross contamination.
“Wheat flour is a real problem as it can stay airborne for up to twenty four hours. Today, many good chefs are aware that deep fat fryers, grills, toasters, unclean counters and utensils that have been used to cook or prepare non-gluten free dishes are all major sources of cross contamination,” says Michael.
It is knowledge like this which both Michael and Derek feel needs to be passed on to the catering trade.
“More training is needed for waiting and serving staff to ensure they are aware of coeliac disease and its effect on sufferers if they get it wrong,” says Derek.
He says restaurants need to market themselves to the gluten free community.
“In many cases venues have spent time and money developing a gluten free menu but then sit on it and don’t tell their potential customers! That does not make any sense to us!”
Michael McCamley agrees.
“Education and training are the keys to the future. Restaurants and hotels need to realise that clients are not asking for gluten free dishes out of choice but out of necessity.”