Testing Food for Gluten: Which foods are concerns?
Last week we conducted some in-person testing here in our offices. We are focused on some of the mechanical aspects of testing food for gluten and needed people to come in and help us test with different foods.
We turned one of our conference rooms into a “cafe,” Chez Nima.
We also know that any time we get the chance to talk to people, we want to ask as many questions as we can squeeze into the conversation. One thing we’ve been doing over the past several years is asking people what they want to test. Nima has to work for all food types — from soups to desserts. We do want to know what the triggers are for people. What makes them pause on a menu?
So we made a fake menu. Well ok, we took menus from three local restaurants, merged them, altered them with certain adjectives that may indicate gluten-free or not, and used that.
We asked people to cross out things they definitely wouldn’t eat and to circle items that gave them pause or where they would want to ask the wait staff for greater detail.
You can see some of the results here. Items that are obviously filled with gluten – pasta, crostini, or flatbreads are dismissed out of hand. Items labeled “crispy” have negative connotations for our testers. We had a cornmeal item that also elicits concerns from folks because they all said they’d been zinged before by something supposedly only made of corn. Some cross off items like buns for hamburgers or remove croutons to make an item safe to eat. Anything that could have a sauce or dressing is immediately considered suspect. Finally, potato dishes are held to great scrutiny.
How does this stack up with all our previous research? The super obvious stuff (pizza, bread, pasta) is immediately discarded when one glances at a menu. The remaining items are then reviewed for potential concerns. Based on everyone we’ve talked to and tracked over the past several years, the most consistent items of concern are: potatoes in all their forms, fried items, sauces, and soups. Potatoes are often adulterated. If mashed, flour can be used to thicken. If fried, they may be cooked in the same oil used for breaded goods, If baked, are they coated with flour for color? Fried items again may share the same oil that is used for breaded items or may be breaded. Sauces and soups may have flour as a thickener or begin with a roux. Sauces might also contain soy sauce or other items containing gluten.
You’ll also note that one menu is significantly more marked up than the others. This person also has a tree nut allergy — making that many more items subject to scrutiny. We know that as we branch into allergens beyond gluten we need to think about all the hidden places other items like nuts, dairy, soy, corn, and others can hide so we have a robust list of items people with those allergies would be most likely to test.
Now, you may want to know what foods we had people test? We had a short list of items, but it included: tomato soup, croutons, risotto, fries, bread, and a brownie. Soup to dessert, indeed.