Food Manufacturers Reformulating Childrens' Foods For More Gluten-Free Options

Chuck E. Cheese experiences the challenges and rewards of reformulating without gluten.

By Rory Gillespie, Contributing Editor

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It takes many things to keep a child happy. Especially in the event of a special occasion, such as a birthday or team celebration. Providing joy in the life of little Joey or Jane is a goal for most parents.

To Joe Elliot, it's his business.

As the vice president of research and development for Chuck E. Cheese, Elliot works at keeping kids happy and well fed. The company and its franchisees operate a system of 566 Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants located in 47 states and eight foreign countries or territories. The goal of these outlets is to create lifelong memories through food, musical robots, games and play areas.

Elliot recently won a battle in his war against blandness. Although children (or parents) with Celiac disease or some gluten intolerance aren't a large segment of the general population, he wanted them, too, to be able to enjoy the fun that goes with having a pizza at Chuck E. Cheese.

According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, 1 in 133 people have Celiac disease, meaning it affects at least 3 million Americans. It is an inherited autoimmune disorder that impacts the digestive process. When a person who has Celiac disease consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, the individual's immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients into the body.

The victory for the customer who couldn't enjoy a pizza at a Chuck E. Cheese arrived via a trade show meeting. Elliot chatted with Mike Conte of Conte's Pasta. They worked together to create a tasty gluten-free, individual pizza, which is shipped in a specially sealed package that goes directly into the store's oven. Then it's served to the customer in that same safety packaging so no cross-contamination may occur. Each pizza even comes with its own disposable cutter.

"Yes, it is good to be able to fill a niche like that," Elliot said. "Parents have shown their appreciation and can see to what extent we have gone to provide an enjoyable experience. Often they will buy one or two of our frozen products and take them home."

It was a three-way effort of a food processor, a restaurant/entertainment operator and a packaging company that resulted in a safe, transportable product from the processor directly to oven and to the customer.
It wasn't an overnight success, as the process took a couple of years.

"We wanted to make sure it was safe and tastes good," said Judy Sabella, vice president at Conte's Pasta Co., Vineland, N.J. "We would not serve it to someone and take that chance and at the same time we had to study packaging and discover what we could come up with."

Elliot, who has about 40 years experience in the food industry, had been seeking a gluten free option for a long time, and his forays into a gluten-free pizza were mostly disappointing. Cross-contamination might be a problem in his stores where a young employee might not grasp the importance of keeping one pizza separate from all the others. Taste, though, was still the biggest concern.

"A couple of companies came out with a product to show us," Elliot said, "and most of them were terrible, darn near inedible."

Conte's, which grew from the family matriarch making pasta for neighbors to a restaurant and now to a dedicated Italian food provider for both the foodservice and retail sectors, has a full line of fare. It has become dedicated to the gluten-free market. It constructed a dedicated gluten-free facility in October 2009.

Another leader in the gluten-free movement followed a similar route. Caesar's Pasta began providing Italian delicacies as a deli. It has now branched into worldwide sales.

A brother in the Caesar's family discovered he was gluten-intolerant, and that helped move the business to create gluten-free items as well as certified organic, vegan and dairy-free products.

"It really brings such a joy to us as a company, and people really appreciate our food," said Ron Lodato, senior vice president at Caesar's Pasta, Blackwood, N.J. "It has been very intensive and time consuming for us. But it pays off when a customer says, 'This is great. I haven't been able to enjoy manicotti since I was diagnosed (with Celiac disease)."

Besides the work of creating a flavorful dish from rice flour or other ingredients, it has to have the right elasticity for an entrée such as manicotti. Contamination from wheat products is watched carefully.

"Cross-contamination is a big issue and we take it very seriously," Lodato said. "We remove all the wheat from the facility, test and then test again in the morning. When we start running our gluten-free products we test continually. Our products are less than 5 parts per million, which is the same as gluten-free. We do our best and there is no possibility of cross-contamination."

More than pizza and pasta

There is, of course, much more to the gluten-free revolution than just pizza and pasta.

The American Egg Board cited information from a Mintel Group market research study that has shown gluten-free food sales have grown 27 percent from 2009-2011 to an estimated $6.1 billion. The report said better tasting food, rising incidence of Celiac disease and celebratory endorsements are some of the keys to the 88 percent increase in products using the claim gluten-free from 2008 to 2012. It also shows a 134 percent increase in the gluten-free claim to all U.S. product launches with an egg ingredient.

The Mintel study notes that gluten-free claims on U.S. menus rose an impressive 582 percent since 2008. National chains such as Dominos and Dunkin Donuts have gluten-free options on their menus.

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