If you want proof that news can somehow be both utterly surprising and yet entirely expected, here it is: Dunkin’ Donuts is set to introduce the first gluten-free pastries in the fast-food industry by the end of the year.
The surprise factor, of course, is that, to the average person, the phrase “gluten-free doughnut” sounds about as oxymoronic (and seemingly impossible) as “sugar-free cookies” and “fat-free cheeseburgers.” Yet as independent bakers who have been catering to the growing demand for gluten-free products for a number of years have proven, there’s a whole world of flour out there that isn’t made from wheat (or rye or barley), all of which contain gluten.
Therein lies the “entirely expected” part: As Bloomberg reports, sales of gluten-free products were almost $20 billion for the year ending May 11, which outstripped revenue for goods labeled “cholesterol-free,” “multigrain” or “high-fiber.”
In other words, mass-market, gluten-free doughnuts and muffins were only a matter of time.
That it was Dunkin’ Donuts, and not its larger rivals for your breakfast dollar, McDonald’s and Starbucks, is a bit of a surprise, too. The chain that made news recently for unveiling a breakfast sandwich made from fried eggs and bacon wedged between two halves of a sliced glazed doughnut will now also offer gluten-free cinnamon-sugar doughnuts and gluten-free blueberry muffins nationwide.
“We recognize the importance of providing our guests with many options, including alternative choices for people with food and dietary restrictions,” Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Stan Frankenthaler told Bloomberg in an email.
That’s certainly one way to spin it. But the truth is, Dunkin’ probably didn’t set out on a public-service mission to provide the relatively small percentage of Americans who actually suffer from celiac disease with equal access to convenient grab-and-go rings of fried dough.
No, Dunkin’ more likely has its eye set on grabbing a slice of that aforementioned $20 million gluten-free pie.
It’s just another example of the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game big food companies are playing with consumers, co-opting the label lingo of purveyors of “alternative” foods (itself a nebulous concept) to try and capitalize on an indie aura of wholesomeness and goodness.
The most obvious example, of course, is what’s happened to “organic,” as Big Ag muscled its way in to dilute the standards for what once had been a way to identify foods produced outside of the whole industrial agriculture system.
Today White Castle has its own food trucks. And, more sneakily, so does ConAgra, as my colleague Willy Blackmore reported recently; the food giant behind such blockbuster brands as Swiss Miss and Chef Boyardee is trying to get hip with Wicked Kitchen in L.A., even as it conceals its ownership of the fledgling brand.
Big brewers are masquerading as “craft beers,” and Candice Choi at the Associated Press filed a fascinating, creepy story this week about all the crafty ways fast-food chains and grocery-store brands alike are attempting to capitalize on the whole “artisanal” thing.
“Kraft Foods took more than two years to develop a process to make the thick, uneven slabs of turkey in its Carving Board line look like leftovers from a homemade meal rather than the cookie-cutter ovals typical of most lunchmeat,” Choi reports, while Domino’s has instructed workers making its line of premium Artisan Pizzas “not to worry about making the rectangles [of dough] too perfect: The pies are supposed to have a more rustic look.”
“They can’t change the fact that they’re making processed products so they have to use these other tricks to pretend,” one industry critic tells Choi.
Are they fooling anyone?
Last weekend, we were hosting a bunch of family for dinner, and I grabbed a carton of Edy’s “Slow-Churned” French Vanilla ice cream at the store to top the grilled berry cobbler we were making for dessert. Yes, dear reader, I admit that in my shopping haste, I was subconsciously attracted to what I dimly imagined was somehow a more traditional, old-timey way of making ice cream (plus it was on sale).
Only later did I discover that “slow-churned” is marketing parlance for an industrial process that’s as complex as it sounds: “low-temperature extrusion.”
Consider me duped.