When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that's amore...
Oh, sorry. I'll stop singing that Dean Martin tune now. We have news... I think.
So, Domino's Pizza made headlines recently with its May 7 announcement that, in response to consumer needs, it would be launching a Gluten Free Crust at almost all of its 5,000 locations across the U.S. Apparently, this Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company is the first national pizza chain to offer such a product, which comes in the form of a small 10-inch pizza. Their YouTube video offers a glimpse of this new crust.
We were skeptical of all the hype, since we know of at least one regional chain that already offers gluten free pizza (Red Brick). So we checked a few other larger pizza chain websites to see if they offered anything similar... but nothing indicated they do. Not Pizza Hut or Papa John's, or Little Caesars or Noble Roman's pizza.
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So maybe Domino's, the world's largest pizza chain, is baking novel dough here. Maybe pizza won't be the "arch-nemesis of the gluten-sensitive" any longer, at least not at this national chain. But then we took a closer look and realized something kind of upsetting: Apparently, this new crust is only appropriate for those with "mild gluten sensitivity," and in the very press release announcing this product, there's a disclaimer-styled note stating that neither Domino's nor the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) recommend this pizza for those with celiac disease.
Note that plenty of other big names in the food and beverage industry have already made the move to offer gluten free options — Subway, Anheiser-Busch, Frito-Lay and P.F. Changs to name a few who've snagged a spot in the $6.2 billion (!) market for people unable to consume products made with gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. With as much as 8% of the U.S. population going gluten free to some degree, it's about time these companies start offering these "options" to those who don't have the option.
Ironically, Domino's announcement's timing was clearly engineered to coincide with May being National Celiac Awareness Month. And Domino's consulted with the NFCA to make sure the pizza pies met the standards created by the foundation's celiac-friendly accreditation program. It didn't. While the crust is "certified as gluten free," the locations where the pizza is made can't guarantee there is no cross-contamination from other gluten-containing pizza and kitchen areas.
We were initially impressed with this news from Domino's, especially our own Amy, who lives with gluten intolerance and has written before that this disorder can be, in some ways, more of a burden than diabetes. While we PWDs might complain about the rocky blood sugar roller coasters (a.k.a. glu-coasters) we experience after eating pizza, at least we have the option to enjoy it when we want. The gluten free tag from one of the biggest pizza chains appeared to give those with gluten sensitivities a similar choice.
But if you've been diagnosed with celiac, don't go rushing out to grab a pizza at Domino's just yet. As we've mentioned, there's a catch. Despite the marketing, the new crust may not actually be completely free of gluten. There's no guarantee it's safe. Even the company admits that.
The risk of exposure is "low," according to third-party cross-contamination studies, and so Domino's maintains that it's an OK option for those with mild gluten sensitivities — although we're not sure how that's defined. Amy's disorder is supposedly a "severe wheat allergy" according to her doctors, so can she safely eat this versus someone who has "mild celiac"?
Why won't Domino's stores use a separate area of the kitchen or use completely new ingredients when making this gluten "free" crust? They explain in a FAQ:
"Domino's worked closely with the NFCA and recognizes that with our current operational model we cannot, beyond all doubt, provide the environment needed to assure those with celiac disease that the whole pizza is 100 percent gluten free. Domino's does not want to set unrealistic expectations of how the Gluten Free Crust is handled in our stores. Domino's would rather be honest and transparent about this product and avoid risking a customer ordering this product under false pretenses. Domino's includes its Gluten Free Crust disclaimer in store, online, in all advertising and on all pizza boxes."
Sure, I get the business decision here. Creating new crusts and changing how you make pizza isn't cheap. And I certainly appreciate the effort and transparency. But is that good enough?
To me, this is like waving a biscuit in front of your dog and letting her see it and lick her lips, before you take the treat away and toss it in the trash because there's a chance it's poisoned. If there's even a possibility the snacks may sicken your Scooby, and that warning is on the box at the store, are you still going to spend the money to buy them? No, I didn't think so.
Personally, I'm fortunate enough to not have any food allergies (that I know of) that might impact my meal choices. So I don't know from first-hand experience how significant this news is. The NFCA national celiac awareness organization seems to support it. And comments on media stories reporting the news are largely positive and excited about the new option. So maybe I'm off base on this.
But I can't help thinking: you make a pizza that's apparently in demand by millions nationwide, but it's not guaranteed safe for them to eat it? Seriously? What's the point? Naturally, Domino's PR hasn't been particularly vocal about the small print. So how many might see the label "gluten free" and go eat some slices right away, without knowing the possibilities of cross-contamination? It seems there'd be more health risk in providing this "possibly cross-contaminated" crust than simply NOT offering it.
Curious what this means to those living with celiac and diabetes, I reached out to Jewels in Flagstaff, Arizona, who's a registered nurse and longtime type 1 herself, but also mom to a 10-year old daughter diagnosed with both type 1 and celiac disease about five years ago.
She said, "With all the flour in the air and people paid minimum wage, will it actually be GF? If it is prepped with clean hands, in its own oven and no double-dipping into the sauce and cheese, it could be an option. But my daughter is so sensitive that we won't be eating there. I think it's a valiant effort, but more for gluten-sensitive folks, not celiac. With diabetes, the consequences are not just exposure and a belly ache. It's inflammation for a few weeks and that increases blood sugars, too. A total drag, and not worth it!"
Jewels and family prefer to eat at Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen in Arizona, which has wheat and GF pizzas and is recognized by the Celiac Sprue Association. She says that local pizza business could be a model for Domino's and others in better preparing these food options.
I know a lot of other local restaurants and chains are now offering menu choices that purport to be gluten free. Chicago is famous for its pizza and has many gluten-free pizza joints, as does New York and other big and small places nationally. The NFCA offers resources for finding gluten free food and recipes wherever you might be.
Jennifer North, VP of the NFCA, says that all pizza restaurants have a unique challenge here; they'll need to start breaking and changing habits to serve the GF client base. They need to understand how to prepare this food properly, since flour can stay in the air for up to two days. Many Italian restaurants often re-use the same pasta water over and over again, so colanders need to be dedicated to just GF food, even though other utensils can be shared as long as they're cleaned properly.
So just like with any tempting promises, it's probably best to keep a suspicious eye on anything claiming to be "free" — whether it's sugarless (but carb-loaded!), fat-free or even kosher.
On the nationwide pizza front, I suppose this Domino's offering is a start. Maybe it's not quite true amore, but at least there's a mutual attraction. Both Domino's and the no-gluten pizza lovers are at least smiling at each other... We'll see where the relationship goes from here!
What do you all think?