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By John K. Ashby | 03/31/2006
The total allergen-oriented market is expected to top $4 billion by 2008, according to Packaged Facts, New York. Currently, more than 2,000 products carry some form of gluten-free claim, and the gluten-free share is growing in almost all prepared-food categories. This used to be a natural food channel exclusive, but two-thirds of these foods are now purchased in conventional supermarkets.
Who are these consumers and what exactly is their problem? Celiac disease spurred the initial push for gluten-free products, but millions more are buying in than have the disease.
Celiac disease — also known as sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy — is a true food allergy. About 3 million people in the U.S. — nearly 1 percent of the population — have celiac sprue. Only the complete and permanent avoidance of gluten relieves symptoms. This immune-system reaction against the gluten protein in the gut causes inflammation and damage to the digestive system. The body is no longer able to absorb nutrients effectively, and there can also be bleeding, obstructions or other complications.
The range and severity of symptoms is large and can mimic so many other conditions, that it frequently isn’t pursued until the patient is extremely ill. In severe cases, celiac disease can lead to hospitalization or death.
Yet celiac disease is suspected to be dramatically underdiagnosed in the U.S. On average, diagnosis doesn’t occur until the patient is in his or her 40s, although the patients have suffered from infancy and, in many cases, have been seriously ill for years. Eventually, malabsorption symptoms become so debilitating that detailed diagnostic procedures — e.g. blood tests, biopsy — must be used.
But the best diagnosis occurs when all gluten is removed from the diet and the individual gets better. Diagnosis is not missed as often in Europe; doctors are prepared to look for it, people are aware of it and labs are set up to do the complicated diagnostic tests.
|Enjoy Life Natural Brands Inc. is the first processor to be certified by the Gluten Free Certification Organization. The company's Enjoy Life Foods line includes cookies, snack bars, granola cereals, breads, bagels and chocolate chips.|
In Europe, it is also much more common to look for celiac disease in conjunction with Type I diabetes (see "Playing for Life: The New Diabetes Formulation Paradigm," April 2006.) This connection between the two conditions is important: Type I diabetes occurs 20 times more frequently in celiac populations than in the general population — upward of 10 percent of persons with celiac disease have Type I diabetes.
There is a growing medical awareness of the disease in the U.S. For food processors, this translates into greater consumer and industry interest in celiac disease.
Gluten is one of the eight allergens now required to be disclosed on food packaging following enactment of FALCPA (www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/wh-alrgy.html), the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. As a part of FALCPA, the FDA is expected to propose a definition for labeling a food as “gluten-free” by 2008. More gluten-free products are needed to fill this need.
Celiac-related gluten is the storage protein of the wheat group of grasses. This group includes triticale and durum wheat, but also barley and rye as well as “heritage” grains such as einkorn, emmer, farro, kamut and spelt.
Occasionally, these heritage varieties have been presented as “better” from an allergen perspective. This is not the case for persons with celiac. Related to this, French Meadows Bakery had to re-label bread made with kamut and spelt because it was labeled as a wheat alternative, although both grains are types of wheat.
Heritage wheat varieties do differ from their modern-day cousins, and it is possible persons with other wheat allergies might find some relief from these ancient varieties. But it is not guaranteed and variation among individuals is great. The gluten protein that persons with celiac are responding to is a different part of the protein than people who have other wheat or gluten allergies.
Currently, consumers are relying predominantly on a small group of product brands. The brand loyalty in this category is enough to make any marketer take notice. There are also dozens of organizations providing assistance with lists of products they believe to be safe for those with celiac disease. A sample includes the Studio City, Calif.-based Celiac Disease Foundation (www.celiac.org), the Omaha, Neb.-based Celiac Sprue Assn. (www.csaceliacs.org), Case Nutrition Consulting, Canada (www.glutenfreediet.ca) and the Canadian Celiac Assn. (www.celiac.ca).
No legal definition for “gluten-free” products has been established. The Gluten Free Certification Organization (www.gfco.org) was created by the Gluten Intolerance Group of Seattle (www.gluten.net). Their goal is to audit food operations to ensure foods meet their standards of gluten-free. If so, then the manufacturer is allowed to place the trademarked “Certified Gluten-Free” symbol on their products and literature. GFCO affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU) in order to gain access to the latter’s network of experienced food plant auditors.
The first organization to be certified by GFCO — in January of this year — is Enjoy Life Foods by Enjoy Life Natural Brands Inc. The company was founded in 2001 by Scott Mandell and Bert Cohen, formerly bankers. Bert Cohen’s mother was on a restricted diet due to multiple sclerosis and the difficulty of adhering to such a strict, allergen-free diet inspired them to create foods that are free of the “big eight” allergens — wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and fish. The company manufactures products in a dedicated facility and routinely tests for gluten, casein and peanut protein. Its product line includes cookies, snack bars, granola cereals, breads, bagels and chocolate chips, and is distributed throughout North America.
Natural foods retailers have long recognized the value of the gluten-free products market. Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market boasts a list of gluten-free products 15 pages long. Such a large, captive population provides not only a guaranteed market, but also a core group around which a larger market is developing. To the 3 million celiac-afflicted patients, add possibly millions more undiagnosed, as well as those consumers with other wheat or gluten sensitivities or allergies.
There’s yet another group of consumers which may total more than the above groups together: those consumers who avoid wheat and gluten through the perceived health benefit (legitimate or not). Estimates of this group are rough, but believed to be up to 10 million persons.
Products made without wheat or other gluten sources are transitioning from niche to mainstream. The field is growing in sales while cutting across every product category.
— John K. Ashby is General Manager - Ingredients for California Natural Products, a manufacturer of rice ingredients for the food industry.
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