Made without Gluten is the name of our new program offering solutions for customers needing to avoid gluten in their diet. As we release the final two levels of the program, I realize that very rarely do people get a chance to see the process behind menu and program development. What most see is the end result – delicious dishes and savvy marketing. In this case, the back story is actually pretty interesting and worth telling – so here is the journey that resulted in Made without Gluten!

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We prepare and serve food. There are more elaborate ways to explain it, but that is pretty much what we do. We have thousands of talented chefs, cooks, dietitians, managers, line servers, dish washers and cashiers that work every day to source ingredients, turn them into delicious dishes and serve them to our customers in a variety of settings. Because we do this onsite, most of our customers have a unique opportunity to have a face -to-face conversation with the people who prepare their food. If you want to know if an item contains or doesn’t contain something, you simply ask the chef or the designated Resident Food Allergen Expert (RFAE) – someone who has been trained to communicate with our customers about ingredient questions, especially those that involve allergies. They can tell you which ingredients they used and how they prepared it. If you need more information, they can even show you the label from a specific ingredient. To make sure our chefs and RFAEs have the knowledge they need to give accurate information during these conversations, we offer extensive training on food allergies and celiac disease. To date, over 3,200 of our associates have completed the newest of these trainings which we now offer online.

Sounds nice, but why not just label everything and save ourselves the trouble of having customers ask us questions? First, we love talking with our customers! Second, because of the nature of onsite food preparation, things can change quickly. A delivery arrives in the morning that was supposed to have spinach, but instead has arugula so we made a different salad … An oven breaks so we have to swap out one of our baked dishes … The chef tastes the soup and realizes it needs a little something. Some of these changes alter the accuracy of an ingredient label or sign that was likely printed ahead of time based on what was planned. In many cases, there isn’t time to make updates before customers arrive, so we take the signs down so they don’t mislead our customers. If we didn’t have a system in place for open communication, there wouldn’t be a good way for information about that new food item to get to those who need it.

While we still feel that a conversation with our chef or RFAE is the safest way for our customers to understand their food choices, we recognize that some of our customers may prefer to be able to look for signs to guide them.

Now let’s talk about gluten-free vs. made without gluten. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten-free has a pending definition by the FDA (<20 ppm). This is a good thing for those who need to avoid gluten because it gives clarity as to what it means exactly when you see the term gluten-free, a term that has been somewhat loosely defined up to this point. For us, it means that we will not call items we prepare in our kitchen gluten-free if we can’t 100% guarantee that they meet or fall below that level of gluten content. Because almost all of our kitchens handle some items that contain gluten, that guarantee can’t be made. To make sure that we accurately communicate what we can do, we decided to just call the food what it is …made without gluten. Nonetheless, we have been committed to making sure Made Without Gluten items are as close to gluten-free as possible. This meant reviewing recipes, developing new recipes and reviewing every ingredient that goes into those recipes…Checking with the manufacturer or supplier of just about everything that didn’t come in as fresh produce…We outlined how the ingredients could be stored and received, where the food could be prepared and which dedicated utensils would be needed…the works!

We are proud and excited to launch this program, and we hope you’ll look out for it in a café near you.

Note: This program does not replace the accommodations we make in schools, hospitals and other settings where medically directed diets are needed.

  • Jennifer M. Ignacio, MS, RD, Nutrition Communications Manager, Compass Group North America

Follow Jennifer on Twitter @jmimsrd

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