In a fast-food first, Dunkin' Donuts adds gluten-free

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Dunkin' Donuts is poised to beat McDonald's and Starbucks in introducing the fast-food industry's first gluten-free pastries.

The coffee and breakfast chain owned by Dunkin' Brands Group Inc. will sell gluten-free doughnuts and muffins in all its U.S. stores this year, Stan Frankenthaler, the company's executive chef, said in an email.

"We recognize the importance of providing our guests with many options, including alternative choices for people with food and dietary restrictions," he said. The pastries are packaged separately to avoid contamination from other foods that contain wheat flour.

Gluten-free foods may be the next trend for restaurant chains and coffee shops as they try to entice customers and increase sales with healthier items, even though wheat-free doesn't necessarily mean fewer calories. Domino's Pizza has gluten-free crusts, while Starbucks, the world's largest coffee- hop operator, is considering creating some gluten-free items after it bought a bakery that sells organic breads last year, said Linda Mills, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based company.

"The number of people who think they benefit from going gluten-free is growing," Nancy Childs, a food marketing professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview. Gluten-free foods aren't only consumed by people with celiac disease, she said.

"People feel that they are choosing a healthier alternative" when they buy gluten-free fare, she said.

Those with celiac disease can't eat gluten, the protein in wheat, rye and barley. The autoimmune disorder affects about one out of every 133 Americans, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center's website.

Dunkin', known for its carbohydrate-dense foods including bagels, doughnuts and muffins made with wheat flour, tested the gluten-free breakfast pastries in locations in Massachusetts earlier this year. The company was "pleased with the results" and is now selling the items in shops in the Hartford, Conn., area, Frankenthaler said.

The new items aren't always lower in calories than other Dunkin' Donuts baked goods. The wheat-free doughnut has 320 calories, while a glazed doughnut has 260 calories. And the gluten-free blueberry muffin has 400 calories versus 460 for the standard version.