Alternatives moving onto mainstream menus

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY — New options abound for consumers ditching dairy and gluten. Several restaurant chains recently announced menu additions for those avoiding certain allergens.

In early September, Dunkin’ Donuts, a business unit of Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Brands, introduced almond milk as a non-dairy alternative to milk or creamer in coffee and specialty beverages. Through a partnership with Diamond Growers, the chain now offers Almond Breeze vanilla almond milk in hot or iced coffee and lattes.

Customers may now substitute almond milk in coffee and specialty drinks at Dunkin' Donuts.

“Over the past couple of years, based on an increasing number of customer requests, we began to explore options for expanding our menu with a non-dairy alternative to milk and cream,” said John Costello, president, global marketing and innovation for Dunkin’ Brands. “We believe adding Almond Breeze almond milk now gives our guests a unique and delicious new way to enjoy our famous coffee or lattes.”

Almond milk has emerged as the top plant-based alternative to milk, according to Technomic, Inc., Chicago, which tracked a 41% increase in non-alcoholic beverages made with almond at fast-casual restaurants in the second quarter of the year, compared with the same period in 2013.

In global launches at retail, dairy alternatives surged by 36% last year, led by almond milk, accounting for more than 55% of the U.S. plant-milk industry market, according to Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. Also making a splash is coconut milk, which grew 36% in product introductions worldwide from 2012 to 2013.

Starbucks Corp., Seattle, this spring began testing coconut milk as a non-dairy option in its handcrafted beverages, including hot, iced and blended, in approximately 600 stores in Cleveland, Oregon and Los Angeles. A spokesperson for Starbucks said the company chose coconut milk over almond milk in consideration of those with tree nut allergies. The chain has offered soy milk since 1997 and began including gluten-free food options in 2009. The chain’s La Boulange bakery menu features a certified gluten-free marshmallow crispy rice bar.

Jason's Deli recently added gluten-free nuggets, which are made with cornmeal instead of traditional breading.

 

Gluten, be gone

Jason’s Deli, Beaumont, Texas, this month announced the addition of gluten-free chicken nuggets. Dubbed J.D. Nuggetz, the item features chicken breast and rib meat pieces breaded with cornmeal.

“The Jason’s Deli team understands that today’s dietary limitations are varied and families are challenged now more than ever to find convenient, healthy options,” said Jamie Cohen, brand management director at Jason’s Deli.

Gluten-free claims on menus increased 200% and accounted for 40% of the total growth in ingredient nutritional claims on menus between the fourth quarter of 2010 to 2013, according to Mintel, Chicago.

“The number of allergen-related claims will continue to gain momentum, as more people are officially diagnosed with specific allergies and their families also go on restricted diets to help keep them healthy,” said Julia Gallo-Torres, category manager, U.S. food service Oxygen reports, Mintel. “Leaning towards health, there also is a surge in vegetarian and vegan foods.”

Among the top 20 restaurant trends in the “What’s Hot in 2014” survey presented by the National Restaurant Association, Washington, gluten-free cuisine ranked fifth. While only a small percentage of the population avoid gluten for medical reasons, 9% of restaurant patrons surveyed by Mintel perceive gluten-free items as healthier.

Poised to profit from the trend is Udi’s Gluten Free, a business unit of Boulder, Colo.-based Boulder Brands, which supplies pizza crusts and burger buns to several national chains. Recently, Papa Murphy’s, the Vancouver, Wash.-based chain known for its take-and-bake pizzas, began testing an Udi’s gluten-free crust option for medium pies. Earlier this year, Smashburger, Denver, added Udi’s gluten-free buns and reformulated its seasoning for burgers and grilled chicken to be gluten-free. And Jason’s Deli offers Udi’s gluten-free bread as an option for its sandwiches.

Restaurant patrons may soon see more meatless offerings on menus, too. Beyond Meat, El Segundo, Calif., is set to introduce The Beast, a pea protein-based beef alternative, for use in food service. Tropical Smoothie Café, Atlanta, began offering the brand’s chicken-free strips in wraps, salads and flatbreads last year.

Not all alternative options on mainstream menus are a hit, however. Last year, Dunkin’ Donuts tested a gluten-free cinnamon sugar donut and blueberry muffin in select markets, but a spokesperson for the company told Food Business News the chain has no plans to debut these products nationally. Still, the chain said it continues to develop gluten-free products for future tests and remains committed to exploring ways to offer customers gluten-free choices.
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