Gluten-free should not mean flavor-free

April 18, 2016

Penton Restaurant Group Custom Content

Snacking is more on-trend than ever, and gluten-free snacks are a growing category. According to the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast, 61 percent of the nearly 1,600 chefs surveyed agreed gluten-free is a hot trend, and 64 percent said grazing, or snacking instead of traditional meals, also is hot.

And there is more room for growth. According to a recent study conducted by Penton Research, 43 percent of commercial operators and 53 percent of noncommercial said snack revenues increased over the past two years.

Some snacks are perennial favorites. The Penton Research report shows the top five types of snacks offered by commercial and noncommercial foodservice operators are cookies, chips, crackers, healthy and bars. For noncommercial operators, pre-packaged snacks were especially popular with 76 percent of operators offering those.

Airports are one place where people need a quick, portable snack. Some items are innately gluten-free, so they appeal to consumers who are avoiding grains as well as to those who simply crave, for example, a tropical fruit and nut mix. “Chips are always big sellers, and yogurt, and bars that have a nut base,” says Jeff Call, corporate chef for Concessions International in Atlanta. “Those are not measurable as to whether they are accidental or purposeful gluten-free purchases.”

Concessions International has operations in eight airports, in franchised and proprietary concepts including casual dining, quick service, deli and snack kiosks. The franchised brands include Fresh To Order, which offers gluten-free lentil soup, Einstein Bros. Bagels, which has grab-and-go salads, and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, where the chocolate treats are inherently gluten free.

Call says the gluten-free preference shows up more in the full-service eateries at the airports. Travelers who sit down for a meal sometimes ask for a gluten-free version, such as a burger with lettuce instead of a bun. “At Chef Geoff’s, several of our salads are vegetarian and gluten free — the spinach salad, for example, as well as the arugula salad,” he says. “At American Tap Room in the Reagan National Airport, their spinach salad could be gluten free if the onions are left off the salad [they are fried]. In Denver, we have a spinach salad with dried cranberries, pecans and mozzarella cheese that is gluten free.”

Travelers who stop at kiosks to buy snacks are less likely to look for gluten-free items, presumably because they brought their own snacks for the trip.

Still, Concessions International always looks at new products, and Call says consumers vote with their wallets. While kale chips did not exactly take off, corn tortilla chips always do well.

A number of restaurant chains have incorporated gluten-free items into their menus. Olive Garden has a gluten-sensitive menu that includes Famous House Salad without Croutons, Gluten-Free Rotini with Marinara, and Herb-Grilled Salmon. Red Lobster offers a Chilled Lobster and Shrimp Cocktail, Lighthouse Snow Crab Legs with Broccoli and Butter and Baked Potato. (For kids there is Surf’s Up Sundae.)

Of course, sometimes the consumer wants a quick, portable snack instead of a full meal. These consumers can choose from a variety of gluten-free snacks. Beth Winthrop, registered dietitian and wellness director for Sodexo Universities division, says students who seek gluten-free snacks fall into two categories. “One is: I want whatever kind of snacks my friends are having,'” she says. For those consumers, the university dining areas offer special gluten-free cookies, a variety of salty, crunchy snacks and many other gluten-free options.

The other category is the student seeking healthful snacks and purchasing foods that are inherently gluten-free. The choice may be due to the nutritional benefits of these foods or due to an allergy concern. It’s estimated one in 133 Americans, or about 1 percent of the population, has celiac disease, an autoimmune illness triggered by gluten, according to Beyond Celiac. Campus convenience stores offer snacks such as hard-boiled eggs, celery sticks and peanut butter, carrots and hummus and pre-packaged protein bars.

Students like pre-packaged snacks because they can carry them in their backpacks and eat them later, says Melissa Hendricks, registered dietician for Culinary Support Services at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. The packaged foods also offer brand recognition. “On the retail side, they are looking for brands, more so than on the residential side,” she explains. “They know which snacks are gluten-free.”

In the residential, all-you-care-to-eat dining areas, students can select foods from gluten-free stations. For a portable snack, they visit the campus convenience stores. Hendricks says the top-selling gluten-free snacks are gluten-free pretzels and gluten-free ice cream sandwiches. Also popular are fruit cups, which are not necessarily marketed as gluten-free.

Pre-packaged bars are very popular, says Kurt A. Kwiatkowski, executive chef, Culinary Services, Residential and Hospitality Services at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. The campus retail stores, called Sparty’s, recently added clean label, limited ingredient bars that feature fruits and nuts. “Those are going like hot cakes,” Kwiatkowski says. “Now that we’re seeing more of them and they are more readily available, that brings the cost more in line. Our guests are on a budget.”

Kwiatkowski says some consumers seek foods that are gluten-friendly, a less strict descriptor. “Technically, to call it gluten-free, it has to be made in a facility that is certified gluten-free,” he says.

It is not enough for a snack to be gluten-free. It also must be flavorful, says Kevin Dorr, vice president of retail for Morrison Healthcare, based in Atlanta. “It used to be how to remove ingredients, and now it’s how to put flavor back in,” he says. “The flavor profile is bigger and bolder.” Some of the newer flavors in chips and bars include parmesan and cracked pepper, fig and pomegranate, and ethnic flavors such as curry.

Morrison tries to make it easy for consumers to grab these healthful items by merchandising gluten-free bars, cereals and other nutritious snacks near the registers. Dorr thinks consumer demand for gluten-free and for snacks will continue. “It’s not even a trend,” he says. “It’s the new norm.”