Menus with clearly labelled free-from dishes will be increasingly vital to a restaurant's offer.
That's according to foodservice analyst Horizons, which said a growing proportion of the population is becoming concerned with food ingredients, allergens and the desire to eat a more health-conscious diet.
The news comes the day before a set of EU regulations, called the Food Information for Consumers Regulation comes into force (on 13 December).
Foodservice operators are required to provide information on 14 listed allergens on all food sold and Horizons is urging operators to go further by offering a choice of free-from dishes.
"We have been monitoring consumer demand for free-from dishes for some time now," said Horizons director of marketing Emma Read. "Demand has risen considerably this year and a number of the big chain operators are already embracing the free-from concept by offering dedicated menus of gluten-free dishes.
"Operators are not only competing with each other on quality, price and ambience, but increasingly on the dishes they have on their menus. A willingness to include free-from dishes will be important to attract a certain segment of the population," she added.
A recent consumer survey [June 2014] undertaken by Horizons showed that one in 10 consumers sought vegetarian options on menus while a similar number looked for calorie information, 9% wanted low- or reduced-fat dishes and 4% were looking for gluten-free dishes. With women more engaged on food issues than men, 37% of women mentioned at least one healthy or lifestyle factor that was important to them when they chose where to eat out.
Operators are becoming increasingly aware of this growing audience. In a Horizons/JRA survey of foodservice operators [October 2014] 78% acknowledged that gluten-free dishes were gaining in importance, with 60% saying that dairy-free dishes had also become important to their customers.
"We are going to continue to see a big change over the next 12 months as foodservice operators realise that a growing number of consumers are concerned with free-from dishes. Operators need to go further than the legislation dictates and make this an important part of their marketing mix," added Read.