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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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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