Gluten Free: Friend or Fad?

This new dietary awareness leaves a large opportunity in the marketplace as a gluten-free diet has quickly become a fast-growing nutritional movement.

By Eileen P. Acello, Contributor

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For many consumers, gluten free foods are a welcome friend. Nearly 1 out of every 100 Americans has Celiac Disease or what is known as gluten sensitivity.  This is not a completely new disease; Americans first started being diagnosed with Celiac disease as early as the 1940s.

Nearly 21 million people have Celiac disease or some form of sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in all foods and products containing wheat, barley and rye according to National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. In addition to the 1% of the population with Celiac Disease, 6% of Americans have some form of gluten sensitivity while another 5-8% of consumers are looking for gluten free products for various reasons according to researchers at the University of Maryland.

This new dietary awareness leaves a large opportunity in the marketplace as a gluten-free diet has quickly become one of the fastest growing nutritional movements in America according to the NFCA. Some food retailers are seeing green envisioning the dollars they can make from this fad.  For others, this new word is reminiscent of fads, like the Atkins diet, they have seen come and go.

The gluten-free category has defied the recession by continuing to grow with a compound annual growth rate of 30% from 2006-2010 according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, MD based research firm. This firm expects the gluten free market to exceed $5 billion by 2015. Now retailers must understand this market and cater to these consumers if they want to cash in on this trend.

Retailers cashing in
Many progressive retailers are already seeing results with their gluten free nutritional programs.  Three years in the making, Safeway recently instituted a program called SimpleNutrition after surveying their customers who wanted to make more informed food choices. They use green tags through out the store highlighting up to two key nutrient and ingredient benefits such as "organic", "low sodium" or "gluten-free".

Other retailers like Whole Foods only work with vendors who are certified gluten-free by one of the independent third party agencies or allergen control programs which use a 20 parts per million threshold which is the standard proposed by the FDA. Whole Foods offers gluten-free shopping list for customers with these special dietary needs.

Wegman's is another supermarket offering consumers with dietary restrictions a place to go and find variety and guidance in their choices. The retailer dedicates aisles for gluten-free under its Nature's Market Place department. A Wellness Key Program throughout the store indicates, with a brightly colored dot, whether or not a product is gluten free, lactose free, fat free as or helps with any other dietary restrictions.  Wegman's is taking proactive steps with 6 Registered Dieticians on staff, a Fresh News email newsletter that is distributed weekly with new products, recipes and nutritional education, an educational video on their Gluten Free page of  the website and they offer lists of products and recipes that are gluten free in their stores.

Laure Stasik, R.N and dietician is the owner of Alternative Eating, gluten free specialty store, in Scranton, Penn.  She has been in business for more than five years because she found a marketplace niche.  Stasik herself has Celiac disease and could not find the products she wanted at her local grocery store; she went into business for herself and others with this dietary restriction. 

With a variety of retailers dedicating shelf space to this fad market, researchers from Packaged Facts expect to see a much wider range of gluten-free products on shelves by 2012.

Gluten free products on store shelves
Many national food manufactures have realized that gluten-free is not a fad but rather a lifestyle.  Consumers are not necessarily looking for new brands but rather want to continue eating brands they know and grew up with. Some of the more progressive companies are recapturing this brand loyal customer that they have invested in for decades.

Brands such as Kellogg's, General Mills, Frito Lay and Snyder's of Hanover are capitalizing on this market by reformulating or relabeling in some cases their existing brands.

  • Kellogg's Gluten Free Rice Krispies cereal is made with whole-grain brown rice and eliminates barley malt (the source of gluten in the original Rice Krispies cereal). The gluten-free option is produced in a separate facility, and each batch is tested to ensure its gluten-free status.   Gluten Free Rice Krispies cereal is in the cereal aisle, right alongside the original Rice Krispies cereal, and at the same price.
  • Betty Crocker was the first national brand to launch gluten-free brownie, cookie, and cake mixes in traditional grocery stores. This innovative line of products satisfied gluten-free consumers' previously unmet desire to find great tasting, affordable and easy-to-prepare desserts. 
  • Frito-Lay has re-labeled several of their products "gluten free" starting in 2011. "Since many of our chips are made from simple ingredients like corn or potatoes, they have naturally always been made without gluten. However, consumers with Celiac disease have told us it is more helpful when they shop to have the words ‘gluten free' included on the packaging. So to help meet their needs, Frito-Lay is now validating with analytical testing that these products contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten then adding the ‘gluten free' claim to our bags" according to FritoLay.com.
  • Snyder's of Hanover has been working with the Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO), a program of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), since September 2009. As of today, they are happy to announce that their Gluten Free Pretzel Sticks are GFCO certified. 

Other crossover brands that have capitalized on this audience include: Anheuser-Busch's gluten-free Redbridge beer, General Mills Chex cereals & Bisquick, Post's Fruity Pebbles, as well as Boar's Head and Dietz & Watson. Even the Girl Scouts of America are cashing in on this opportunity with their new Gluten Free Blueberry Pomegranate Nut Crunch.

Certification
National brand food companies who want to reformulate their products to become gluten-free must follow some basic rules; getting certified is key. A new science-based gluten-free certification program is now available from organic certifier Quality Assurance International and the health care nonprofit NFCA.

QAI, with its parent company NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization, brings more than 66 years of food safety auditing and certification, and 20 years of organic certification experience, to this new consumer label. NFCA, a recognized healthcare leader in the gluten-free industry, is dedicated to achieving greater accessibility of gluten-free foods and health and food safety solutions for celiac and gluten-intolerant consumers.

The certification program requires:

  • Sensitive testing procedures
  • Stringent auditing 
  • An Independent application review process
  • The use of feedback from consumers, manufacturers and retailers
  • A product review
  • Onsite inspection
  • Testing to ensure compliance to 10 ppm or less 
  • Random product testing

The QAI and NFCA's new "Certified Gluten-Free" consumer label was unveiled to the grocery industry at the recent KeHE Show in Chicago June 12-14, 2011.

The cost of going gluten-free
Anne Lee, MS Ed, RD former nutritionist with the Celiac Disease Center of Columbia University found, through a survey she conducted, that consumers rely on gluten free labels to identify products.

"Consumers are more likely to purchase products with the label on the front of the package compared to the back," says Lee. "When consumers were presented with two products with identical ingredients they purchased the product labeled 'gluten free.'"

According to the The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), to alter an existing product, companies can use rice, corn, soy, potato, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, or nut flours; however, changing the grains can make the products texture and overall taste change significantly.

Many manufacturers question the economic feasibility of going gluten free.  Researcher Jay Berger from FDA.gov says "the biggest investment is the time required to source ingredients and appropriate equipment. " Manufacturers could outsource and utilize co-packers with dedicated gluten free rooms and equipment or Gluten Free Manufacturing facilities.

Another investment is employee training and education.  Using testing from an independent lab will also align a company with the new FDA labeling rules.

Food companies developing products for this market need to consider the FDA's labeling restrictions. The FDA document should include a definition of gluten-free, synonyms that may be used for gluten-free label claims, and an overall threshold value of gluten ppm (parts per million) that can be in a food and still be billed as gluten-free.

Michael Dernoga and Ridgely Francisco owners of Lizbeth Lane Gourmet Cuisine Simmer Sauces have recently received certification on their all natural gluten free simmer sauces. Co-owner, Michael Dernoga explained "this certification allows us to be proactive with our customers and I am happy to say that our sauces fall far under the 20 parts per million threshold."

Lizbeth Lane Gourmet Cuisine quickly saw an advantage in the market place when they created their sauces that just so happened to be gluten free.  Co-owner Rid Francisco explained "we have a second marketing position with our sauces (we are also all natural) that we did not foresee when creating them. We soon realized that it's (gluten-free) a huge market and growing rapidly. Although, there is still a curse associated with gluten free food many people think of them as dull and flavorless but that is what gives us the edge with our sauces because our flavor is not compromised a bit."

The comfort this certification offers the consumer is invaluable to the safety of their health.  Jennifer Brockson, R.N. and Celiac patient states that "eating gluten free food is not a choice it's a life sentence.  So to be able to confidently choose foods that I know are safe because they come from a certified manufacturer is a huge relief."

Sequestering product, testing, taste and texture challenges are among the many factors that interested companies must consider before entering the gluten-free category.

"Food companies have undergone an education about what it takes to produce gluten-free food items," says Dr. Elizabeth Arndt, director of R&D for ConAgra says. "There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes.For example, equipment and manufacturing steps are different."

Market research analysts agree the gluten-free category continues to garner interest from food manufacturers, retailers and consumers. But there is debate about whether interest and demand are sustainable enough to be worth the time and resources food companies will potentially spend working through the challenges posed by gluten-free food manufacturing. 

A different point of view on the gluten-free phenomenon is that the dabblers will drop out of the lifestyle, but companies will continue to make innovations in gluten-free food manufacturing and improve product quality to generate crossover appeal.

"I don't think it's a fad at all," says Arndt. "There is a core of consumers who need these products. The growing selection of gluten-free foods is not like the low-carb craze was. The trend is helping to raise the bar on product quality and nutrition for consumers with Celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities, and it will be a healthier category overall."

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