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Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

Glutenus Minimus
Could gluten-free desserts make the grade in quick-serve environments?
Gluten free cupcakes ready for fast food menus?

The controversy surrounding gluten allergies continues to spark feuds in the diet and nutrition worlds. While some people insist that gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—is responsible for a host of ailments and aggravations ranging from upset stomach to arthritis flare-ups to anxiety, many experts aren’t convinced.

As The New York Times noted in a 2007 feature article: “There is no question that eating gluten aggravates celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients. But doctors say it is unclear whether gluten can be blamed for other problems.” About 3 million Americans are believed to suffer from celiac disease; the number of individuals who have been diagnosed with gluten intolerance or sensitivity is almost certainly much larger.

Perception more or less being reality, the lack of consensus in medical and academic circles hasn’t stopped consumers who believe—or have been told—that gluten is at the root of their health problems from snapping up gluten-free products. In March, the Seattle Times noted that nationwide sales of gluten-free products had grown from $396 million in 2005 to a projected $1.7 billion in 2010.

The question for quick-serve chains: Is this a trend that warrants close attention, or the addition of new menu items, particularly desserts, to attract growing legions of gluten-wary customers?

The answer is: It depends. Specifically, it depends whether chains can make a tidy profit on gluten-free products without having to spend the rent on R&D to develop them.

There are essentially two ways to go about creating gluten-free desserts: You can stick to options that are inherently gluten free: puddings, parfaits, or ice cream treats, for example. Or, as many chains did when low-fat and nonfat foods were all the rage, you can reformulate existing products, in this case substituting flours derived from alternative grains or nuts for wheat flour.

Surveying the quick-serve dessert menu landscape, several possibilities of the latter type suggest themselves. With expert R&D oversight and sensory input, Sonic’s kiddie ice cream cones could be created from a sort of Rice Krispies composite, rather than wheat flour. Apple pies could be made with a corn-based dough, which would potentially change their character in a pleasing way; think deep-fried corn bread as piecrust.

At Jack in the Box, the Chocolate Overload cake could be formulated using potato starch, which happens to be excellent when used as the base for cake batter. And the chain’s Mini Churros could be made with millet or rice or another nonwheat dough.

Along the same lines, Pizza Hut’s baked cinnamon sticks might be even chewier and tastier if formulated from a corn and rice base, or from dough made with teff, a cereal grain cultivated mainly in Ethiopia.

Similarly, any number of chains could introduce fried fritters or turnovers with batter made from rice flour or the ancestral grain quinoa. Tempura-fried bananas and other fruit slices could be developed using a light rice flour coating. And, if crust is a must, there are a number of ways to use crushed nuts—macadamia, almonds, hazelnuts, etc.—as a foundation for, say, a flourless chocolate cake.

As for inherently gluten-free desserts, the range of attractive choices is even broader. Crustless New York-style cheesecake bites or cheesecake parfaits with fruit and/or chocolate sauces could make for crave-able post-meal fare. Dairy items—naked ice-cream treats, milkshakes, and custards—are good bets, and many Asian-themed treats, from ice cream and sorbets to puddings, are often fruit- and rice-based, making them ideal for a gluten-free dessert menu.

From a marketing standpoint, removing hidden sources of gluten could give even standard-issue restaurant staples a halo of wholesomeness. Gluten-free fruit sauces, for instance, can be thinner than their glutenous counterparts, but their consistency might be deemed more natural. Likewise, salad dressings and condiments rendered in gluten-free varieties might have a less processed feel, which could score them points with health-conscious diners.

So, given the widespread interest in gluten-free eating, it might well be worthwhile for chains to create or expand dessert options that exclude the controversial protein.

Whether or not the medical community achieves consensus soon regarding the prevalence of gluten allergies and the effect it is having on individuals, having a handful of gluten-free offerings, particularly those that will be of equal interest to consumers without gluten issues, could well increase dessert sales and generate some positive headlines.

As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.