Cooking for the Gluten-Free Crowd

Seems like it’s everywhere now—the gluten-free movement has reached the Betty Crocker aisle of every grocery store. Just a few years ago, most of us would not have recognized the word “gluten” at all, but now gluten-free products are commonplace, and gluten-free options can be found on menus everywhere.

What’s the big deal about gluten? Well, for people with celiac disease, it’s a very big deal. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by a specific gluten protein (found in wheat). Celiac sufferers experience serious gastrointestinal symptoms such as severe pain and diarrhea. The disease has also been linked to other serious problems, like recurring miscarriages and, in young children, failure to thrive.

Over the last few years, a growing awareness of food allergies has shed light on gluten-sensitivity, which is not the same as celiac disease, but has been cited as a cause for everything from hyperactivity to headaches.

Some say that gluten-free diets are just a trend. This article from Time magazine describes it as another dietary scapegoat. “Avoiding certain ingredients goes in cycles: Back in the 70s, it was sugar. Then it was fat, then saturated fat. Then fat was in but carbs were out. Gluten is the pariah ingredient du jour, and there are a lot of healthy people shelling out big bucks for gluten-free food they probably don’t need.”

As a chef, whether you agree with the wheat-eaters or the gluten-free types doesn’t really matter. What matters is which side your client is on.

If you’re cooking for a client who requests gluten-free fare, your first order of business is to determine his understanding of the term. For people who avoid gluten as a dietary preference, skipping bread, pasta and other goods containing wheat flour is often enough.

However, if your client takes the gluten restriction very seriously, you’ll need to be more careful. Many common ingredients– like soy sauce and beer, for example– may not be obvious offenders, but they contain some form of wheat protein and must be avoided. Watch for tricky items like corn tortillas, which seem like a great option for an alternate starch—but not all are free of wheat ingredients.

To be on the safe side, choose ingredients that are certified gluten free. You can read about gluten-free certifications here.

Cooking for clients with celiac disease requires special food preparation and handling to avoid cross-contamination with wheat ingredients. If your client is diagnosed with the disease, or has a wheat allergy serious enough to warrant such precautions, they’ll most likely know that and seek out chefs or caterers that are trained in gluten-free foodservice.

As always, communicating with your clients is critical—in this case, for their safety as well as their satisfaction.