Grasping Gluten-Free

The gluten-free foods market continues to grow as traditional retailers take note of its longevity

By  Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

While 95% of celiacs are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), the diagnosis rate is expected to reach upwards of 60% by 2019, thanks to efforts to raise public awareness. And while sales of gluten-free foods are expanding along with the diagnoses, also driving this growth is an interest in the diet among non-celiac sufferers.

[image-nocss] Selling Gluten-Free
In 2004, gluten-free products netted $560 million in annual sales. In 2008, that number jumped $1.56 billion. It was expected to reach $2.8 billion by the end of 2010, according to the NFCA.

According to Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts, U.S. sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will exceed $5 billion by 2015.

Interestingly, driving much of this surge in sales of gluten-free food comes from the growing number of non-celiac or gluten-intolerance sufferers opting to reduce their intake. Reports continue to emerge that a gluten-free diet may treat medical conditions from autism in children to rheumatoid arthritis. A recent report conducted by Packaged Facts found that the No. 1 motivation for buying gluten-free food products is simply that they are considered healthier than their conventional counterparts.

Likewise, traditional supermarkets and mass retailers, seeing a healthy longevity for the segment, are stealing share of sales from specialty retailers. The share of the market held by health and natural food stores has been cut in half in just two years, from 30% to 16%.

At the front of this charge is Walmart. According to the Packaged Facts survey of 1,881 U.S. adults, 15% of whom reported buying or consuming food products labeled gluten-free in the past 30 days, just less than half of those shoppers said they buy their gluten-free products from Walmart. Supermarket chains followed closely behind at 44%.

Understanding the Disease
With the increase in awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance has come a confusing barrage of information. For one, the two are different. Celiac disease is not an allergy; it's an autoimmune digestive disease triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. When people with celiac eat gluten, their immune system attacks the finger-like villi of the small intestine.

When the villi are damaged, the body is unable to absorb nutrients, leading to malnourishment and significant problems including osteoporosis, diabetes and canceron top of the more immediate reactions such as cramping and bloating, numbness, fatigue, muscle weakness and rashes.

Most people know that gluten is found in many breads, pastas, cereals and baked goods. What's challenging is the large number of foods where gluten hides. It's often used in food processing, and tricky foods include some sausages, deli meats, salad dressings, seasoning blends, processed or powdered cheeses, sauces and gravies.

The NFCA has a number of resources for foodservice and retail operators trying to grasp gluten-free. Visit www.celiaccentral.org for more information.

By Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products
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