Sophie McKenna is a Business Development Manager at H&L Australia and has worked in hospitality for more than six years. She also has coeliac disease and takes a gamble every time she orders food from a restaurant that is not totally gluten-free but has gluten-free dishes.

The consequences for some with coeliac consuming even small traces of gluten are painful.

We asked Sophie to talk about what venues need to be aware of before stating their menus are gluten-free, and why the trend toward 100% gluten-free may be the only option for some venues, depending on their clientele.

Sophie was diagnosed with coeliac disease as an adult in 2015. People can be born with a predisposition to develop Coeliac disease which may flare up later in life by consuming gluten foods.

What is the incidence of coeliac disease today in Australia?

“Coeliac disease affects 1 in 100 Australians, but about 75% of cases remain undiagnosed. This means that approximately 160,000 Australians have coeliac disease but don’t know it yet. This is concerning as it can be life threatening, and lead to certain types of cancers, anaemia and neurological conditions.”

How many people are looking for gluten-free venues in Australia?

“In Australia, of all the diets people follow, gluten-free is the most popular. Coeliac Australia states that 30% of people are reducing their gluten intake by choice, alongside those who are already following a gluten-free diet because they are intolerant or have coeliac disease.

In the CSIRO Healthy Diet Score Report of 2016, it states that 12.1% of Australians are not eating gluten anymore. In 2019, I would estimate there are now 15-20% of diners looking for gluten-free venues.”

What do venues need to be aware of before they promote gluten free dishes on their menu?

“Gluten is a protein and is found in common grains like wheat, barley rye and spelt. The foods that are gluten-free are completely free of those grains. But the bigger issue is cross contamination and that is basically where gluten can be unintentionally transferred from one food to another. This is what happened for the woman who thought she was eating gluten-free, and it can be damaging for a venue’s reputation.

Cross – contamination

Restaurants will have foods that are naturally gluten-free – for example, fries and squid deep fried with rice flower coating (which is GF). But the same fryer that cooks other gluten products is used to cook gluten-free dishes which creates cross contamination so you can’t really label these GF. Even a small amount of gluten transferred this way is harmful for the coeliac person.

When I order GF fries or squid, I ask if it’s a separate fryer to other gluten products and in most cases it’s not. Most restaurants use the same fryer to fry gluten and non gluten food because they don’t know it’s a problem for gluten-intolerant people.

Very small amount of gluten in things such as bread crumbs are also harmful. When bread is being cut on the same boards as GF bread, or being passed through stations and the crumbs fall off into the GF food, this can damage the small intestine and cause severe pain.”

What is the impact on people diagnosed with Coeliac disease who have gluten?

“Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten. It basically damages the small intestine and reduces its ability to absorb nutrients. Even very small amounts of gluten can cause damage. Symptoms vary between people and can occur immediately or about 6-8 hours after gluten is consumed – bloating, diarrhoea, fatigue, and severe vomiting. The vomiting can last up to 6 hours and the small intestine may take weeks to heal.

Some people have passed out from severe vomiting and have even been hospitalised. It is a serious issue that needs to be taken more seriously by restaurants and that’s mainly because they’re often not aware of the impact.”

What do you recommend for restaurants offering a gluten-free menu?

“Knowledge and understanding is key, for example, I always get asked if I can eat rice and potato, and these are common and easily integrated gluten free foods that can really work well on menus for people like me, if they are not cross contaminated.

When chefs understand the impact, they may like to consider the following:

  • Set up an area of the kitchen which is only for gluten-free food preparation
  • Have gluten-free dedicated fryers to stop cross contamination
  • Become a 100% gluten-free restaurant – but this depends on your clientele and their preferences

Without being a 100% GF venue, you cannot guarantee there is no cross contamination but that is a risk we take as coeliacs. Every time we eat out, we are taking a gamble, and may have a terrible reaction. Ideally 100% GF venues would work best for coeliacs, it’s safe for us and exciting because we know we can go to dinner without stress. When I plan a dinner out, I always call the venue before hand to check their GF status.

As someone who has Coeliac disease, I’m happy we have so much more awareness around this issue now. There used to be a small shelf in the supermarket that stocked GF foods, now there is a whole aisle. There was minimal choice on a restaurant menu for GF foods, now this is growing too and we are seeing 100% gluten-free restaurants.”

H&L Australia are hospitality people creating solutions for the hospitality industry

The team at H&L are hospitality people and we understand the challenges, changes and issues facing venue and restaurant managers. We are here to help advise on trends, menus, and of course POS technology to support your business.

One of our clients, the Duke of Brunswick in Adelaide, recently announced their 100% gluten free menu. You can read more about it here.

We have local account managers in every state of Australia so with feet on the ground, we stay in touch with food trends such as 100% gluten-free menus, vegetarian and vegan dietary needs. Call us on 1800 778 340 to discuss how we can help you improve business at your venue.