The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How other people’s food allergies are changing what you eat

Food allergy illo (Lilly Panholzer for The Washington Post)

I'm standing in a space the width of an airplane aisle, staring at frying oils. It's the kitchen of the Stapleton, Colo., location of Next Door, one of the country's most high-profile casual restaurant companies. Until now, I've given very little thought to frying oils. But I'm on a quest for understanding: to get behind the scenes in a kitchen that is equally friendly to gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and various food-allergic customers as it is to everybody else.

At Next Door, eating restrictions don’t just pepper the menu, signaled through such acronyms as “GF” (gluten-friendly), “DF” (dairy-free), “V+” (vegan) and “GFO (gluten-friendly optional). They downright define it. Instead of topping a salad with nuts, Next Door chefs sprinkle on sunflower seeds. Before frying calamari or pickles and pepperoncini, they dredge them in cornstarch or polenta, respectively, instead of the traditional wheat flour. For their veggie bowl, they use quinoa, because it’s a whole grain that doesn’t have gluten.

I sent in my DNA to get a personalized diet plan. What I discovered disturbs me.

The chefs also use three separate fryers for dishes that are vegan, vegetarian or that contain gluten and/or seafood (for their twice-weekly ­beer-battered fish tacos). Nothing gets cooked in the wrong oil. For customers getting the gluten-free hamburger bun, chefs use a different toasting surface. On “the line,” little buckets of salad toppings are arranged to avoid cross-contamination — bacon and dairy toward the bottom row so as not to drop into the innocent ingredients.

Peanuts aren’t allowed on the premises. Period.

Next Door illustrates just one of many ways food sensitivities are driving the culinary decision-making of entire operations: Rather than jury-rigging dishes to respond to special needs, chefs have engineered many menus from the start to eschew everything from soy to gluten. And most customers don’t have a clue.

You’ve probably seen pizza places whose menus say in fine print “gluten-free dough available upon request.” Or maybe you’ve had the waiter who, like a customs agent, asks at the beginning of the meal if anyone has allergies to declare.

But after learning about Next Door’s approach, it dawned on me: The afflictions of the minority are starting to determine the options for the majority.

And I can’t help but wonder: In response to the dramatic rise in ingredient intolerance — both real and perceived — among American consumers, are all of us bound to be eating less of the foods that, for generations, were the staples of civilization? What does this mean for the future of dining?

The eight ingredients
that most commonly trigger food allergies are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. (Gluten is a protein found in wheat, along with barley, rye and triticale.) About 8 percent of children and 5 percent of U.S. adults have a food allergy. The rate of people with such allergies is doubling about every decade, and about a quarter of them will have a near-fatal reaction at some point in their lives. About 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, 6 percent have non-celiac gluten sensitivity and 33 percent are trying to avoid gluten.

Across the country, campus dining operations offer options for students seeking every designation: kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan. But this year, Cornell University opened an entire dining hall with no trace of gluten, tree nuts or peanuts. At Columbia University, nuts have been removed from all recipes at two dining halls. There, dining directors created “nut zones,” where students use special utensils and dishes to, say, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or sprinkle walnuts on a salad.

In case you haven’t noticed, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and fish — five of the top eight food allergens — are nowhere to be found at Chipotle. The same is true of gluten at the Little Beet, a New York-based chain with locations in the District.

According to Datassential, nearly 26 percent of U.S. restaurant menus now have a “gluten-free” call-out. That’s a 182 percent increase over four years.

Most chefs never used to be so accommodating. But today, even in upscale dining realms, options abound. Take chef Marco Canora’s Hearth Restaurant and Brodo Broth Co. in New York City. Although not stated on restaurant materials, accommodation of dietary restrictions is central to Canora’s philosophy. (Gluten-free, vegan and the Whole30 elimination diet are his top concerns.) “If I was a hyper-creative, artistic chef, I might feel a little differently,” he said. But his take has always been that he’s in the service industry, so he’s happy to bend over backward.

Next Door was founded
in Boulder in 2011 and has five locations in Colorado, one in Memphis and one coming soon to Indianapolis. Co-founder Kimbal Musk has received the lion's share of the press, but to understand the magic, you have to look to the culinary director, Musk's right-hand man, who is shaping the dishes. Merlin Verrier came to Next Door after a career in fine dining, having earned several Michelin stars; he's cooked for celebrities including the Obamas and Oprah Winfrey.

Along with teaching techniques for building flavor — he’s a self-declared “texture freak” — he’s training his growing team to build in allergy and intolerance awareness from the start, as the core of the menu R&D. “Gluten-free outweighs everything, in our opinion,” Verrier said. About two years ago, the company decided gluten-free was here to stay, citing customer demand — though I can’t imagine it was unrelated to one of its own executives’ decision to avoid gluten.

Enemy No. 2 is peanuts. Just over a year ago, Next Door eliminated peanut oil. It’s a go-to frying oil in restaurants given its mild flavor and high smoke point, Verrier said, but he switched entirely to canola oil. “I can’t even let my kids bring peanuts to school these days,” he said. “We’re a family restaurant — so how could we have peanut oil?” He went on: “I never saw an EpiPen at school. That wasn’t part of life. But now it is.”

It’s a point of pride, he said, that parents of kids with peanut allergies who won’t go to other restaurants feel safe coming to Next Door. In the prep kitchen and pantry area, I see the log of monthly in-house audits and the self-imposed private health inspections they incur, which Verrier considers 10 times as strict as those done by the local health department.

Soy is also not allowed on the premises. No soy milk, no soy sauce. Soy sauce often contains wheat, so it’s a no-go for gluten dodgers too.

Next Door and the Little Beet have several other things in common. Neither advertises as being gluten-free, relying on word of mouth. And both consider gluten-free essential to what they call “real food.” But is wheat not “real”?

“Real food is food that you trust to nourish your body,” Musk said. “It’s food that you trust to nourish the farmer. And it’s food that you trust to nourish the planet.” The opposite of real food, to Musk, is “industrial food.” After “decades of a slow, sad train wreck,” he said, referring to the obesity epidemic, “people are looking for something else: The gluten-free decisions are just people saying, ‘I’m going to shut that whole industrial food system out of my diet.’ ”

The thinking at the Little Beet is that many grain-based products that contain gluten happen to be highly processed, what co-founder Andy Duddleston calls “filler.” Instead, the company wants to offer nutritious, intact whole grains. So its chefs developed an ancient grain mix of puffed amaranth, quinoa and Job’s-tears (Chinese pearl barley) that’s become a popular base for its bowls.

To me, gluten-free eating represents the latest phase in America's long history of selling absence — valuing foods for what they lack, from fat-free and low-sodium to non-GMO and ­reduced-calorie. Now, most everyone wants peace of mind about what they're putting in their bodies. But by allowing the absence of allergens to define food itself, are we letting fear go a step too far?

Many of the top eight food allergens — including almonds, whole wheat and salmon — are among the healthiest of foods. In prioritizing food safety for the few, I worry that nutrition for the many might suffer.

I confess to Ruchi Gupta, a food allergy researcher and pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern Medicine, that I’m worried that the most shunned items could gradually drop out of the food supply and that lack of exposure could make more people sensitive to them. On the first front, she said, my fears are unfounded: She considers the top eight such established staples that even if every restaurant changed its menu, she can’t imagine grocery stores would ever stop selling them. (Though bread sales and wheat farmers have indeed taken a hit from the ­gluten-free trend.) On the second front, while unlikely, the science is not yet settled, she said. More research is needed.

Still, the prevalence of “free-from” labels is normalizing food intolerance across the population. They give the impression that there must be something wrong with everyone.

Canora said even he feels frustrated at times: “You get the guy who can’t have alliums, or any dairy, or any meat, or any gluten, and no fat, no vinegar, no fermented anything, and it’s like . . . holy s---, I’ll give you a lettuce leaf, but you should have stayed home!”

When I’m feeling more sanguine, I think about the culinary innovation that’s resulted from the restrictions. The puffed amaranth and the polenta dredge. Perhaps there’s a forgotten weed out there that will soon hog the center of your plate. It will be all anyone talks about, but then someone will develop a rash or stomach­ache and off it will go, the way of the wheat and the nuts. Ah, well, we’ll say. At least it had a good run.

Egan is a San Francisco-based author whose next book is about allergy, intolerance, aversion and the transformation of the American culinary landscape.

More from Food:

Are you a picky eater? This quiz will help you find recipes that suit your tastes

Why small, local, organic farms aren’t the key to fixing our food system

Have questions about cooking? Join our live chat Wednesdays at 12.