Gluten-Free Creates Opportunity, Uncertainty

As more try to capitalize on gluten-free, only some succeed

By
Elliott Krause, Freelance writer

The label of the Gluten-Free Certification Organization

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A group of eight graduate students has been dismissed from evening class and is trying to find a place to eat. They are in downtown Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. There’s a struggle to pick a place that suits everyone’s dietary restrictions and preferences. Some are vegetarian; some are not. Some are gluten-free; some are lactose-intolerant. Some are starving, while the others are merely ravenous.

It has been a long day of dwindling sunlight and dwindling patience that accompanies newly acquainted strangers. I recommend a fast-casual Italian cafe, which serves salads, pastas and pizzas with three choices of crust: regular, whole-wheat and gluten-free.

My new friend and new classmate Olivia, who has a gluten sensitivity, rejects my suggestion.

“But it has gluten-free crust,” I say, happy with myself that I know about gluten-free crust, which I do because my mother has a gluten sensitivity.

“That doesn’t matter,” she says, adding something about “cross-contamination” that I don’t yet understand.

Even though the Italian cafe serves gluten-free crust, the group picks a different place, a sushi restaurant where Olivia and the other gluten-free eater in the group order sashimi and ask the server for the gluten-free soy sauce. She orders a Woodchuck apple cider rather than a beer.

Olivia has been to this sushi restaurant before. She knows that it offers food that is inherently gluten-free, such as sashimi, and that it has gluten-free alternatives to foods that normally have gluten, such as soy sauce. For its commitment to its gluten-sensitive customers, the restaurant has won the business not only of customers like Olivia, but also of Olivia’s friends. Trusting the restaurant, Olivia, along with the rest of her posse, will return next week and do the same.

Like the owners of the Italian cafe, I was still left wondering: What’s wrong with the gluten-free crust? Why aren’t we eating there? As I meet more and more people who are gluten-free, why does it feel as though I know less and less about their affliction?

Despite the uncertainty, business is booming. According to a recent report by Mintel, the gluten-free industry has grown 27% since 2009, and it exceeded $6 billion in 2011. Driving this growth is the explosion of products in 2010 and 2011 that bear a gluten-free claim. Although there is a risk that manufacturers will saturate the market with gluten-free products, Mintel still believes the gluten-free industry is in a period of great growth and that it will exceed $8 billion in 2013.

Mintel’s research shows that 1% of consumers have been diagnosed with celiac disease, and that only 8% report that they have a sensitivity to gluten, even though the true number is closer to 15%. In the past, it took on average 10 years of doctor’s visits before patients discovered they had celiac disease or gluten intolerance. As medical science improves and gluten awareness spreads, it will become easier to recognize the symptoms and, in turn, more consumers will buy products that bear a gluten-free label.

“That right there is going to help this market. The big ‘if’ is: What can be done for those who have a sensitivity but don’t have full-blown celiac?” says David Browne, senior analyst for Mintel. Today there is a test for celiac disease, but not for gluten sensitivity.

Yet with more gluten-free products and more people coming out as gluten-free, more consumers are experimenting with a gluten-free diet, a boon for both the industry and consumers. More products equal more competition, and manufacturers are thus producing better food.

And with better-tasting products, more consumers with neither celiac disease nor a gluten-sensitivity are turning to gluten-free food. Of the 2,000 adults in Mintel’s survey, roughly 14% said they buy gluten-free food. Of that 14%, roughly 4% of adults are eating gluten-free products for reasons other than celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance. Skeptical that it might be a fad, this 4% is peripherally interested in gluten-free.

While this demographic has certainly helped raise the visibility of the gluten-free cause, it can also cause confusion in a foodservice operation. Sufferers of celiac disease and even those with gluten intolerance can be greatly affected by cross-contamination in the kitchen. Suddenly the operator must focus kitchen space, labor and training to ensure a safe environment for a customer who may truly need it, or who is simply cutting back on wheat.

As evidenced in Domino’s recent announcement it will offer gluten-free crust but not a gluten-free environment and the backlash stirred by the celiac-suffering society, this will continue to be a sensitive subject as the gluten-free movement carries on.

Although there are not yet any gluten-free certifications for restaurants, there is potential for it in the future, with inspectors visiting the restaurant and deeming it gluten-free. Until then, operators should use social media to their advantage: Visit online forums where gluten-free is discussed, and visit online review sites such as Yelp.com.

For Mintel’s research, Browne visited Yelp.com, and what he found was “very unusual.” Users, even those who did not have a gluten-intolerance, were asking each other where to safely go out to eat with their gluten-free friends.

When it comes to groceries, certifications offer peace of mind. When it comes to restaurants, trust and transparency is crucial. And that trust gains the business not only of the gluten-free, but also their friends.