Eating "gluten-free" isn't just a fad. The consensus in the scientific community is celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivities are indeed bona-fide conditions with numerous — and potentially serious — manifestations.
Strict, life-long gluten avoidance is critical to those with celiac disease, a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disorder affecting approximately 1 percent of the population in the U.S. And gluten avoidance isn't easy. Foods containing gluten are abundant.
A protein composite found in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye, gluten gives elasticity to dough, helps it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture. Digested normally by most people, gluten is especially noteworthy for its sources of vital amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The body can't make amino acids on its own. If we don't get essential amino acids, proteins break down, resulting in muscle loss and problems with repair.
A healthy market
According to the January 2015 “Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 5th Edition” report from Packaged Facts, gluten-free sales are growing 34 percent each year, and they're taking over more and more grocery shelf space.
Gluten-free products accounted for about one in 10 global food and drink product launches in the 12 months through April, according to Innova Market Insights, and has since increased to about 18 percent. The U.S. gluten-free market posted 2013 revenues of more than $10.5 billion, Mintel reports, adding that about 24 percent of consumers currently eat gluten-free foods or have someone in their household who does. By 2016, Mintel expects that the market could climb to $15.6 billion.
Now that the gluten-free food industry has a federal regulation to follow, more processors are getting into the gluten-free food category. The FDA labeling rule stipulates that single and multi-ingredient products labeled gluten-free must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, no matter how this level is achieved. In addition, gluten-free manufacturers often require all ingredient suppliers to be certified gluten-free to help reduce the chance of cross-contamination.
So why is a small percentage of America's eaters such a driving force in the food market?
"This [growth] is partly due to improved labeling regulations, but also to the rising awareness of gluten intolerance in the diet, and the development of more mainstream and good-tasting gluten-free products across a whole range of food and drinks sectors," notes Innova's director of innovation Lu Ann Williams. Mintel says many consumers are opting for gluten-free versions of foods simply to test them to determine if they could be gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive, and a quarter of consumers admits to eating gluten-free foods for weight loss.
Some try gluten-free products because of the big trends in organic and sustainably sourced foods. Others are deluged with the abundance of misinformation and the confusion about the definition of gluten (some think gluten and wheat mean the same thing, although they do not). Regardless, Mintel reports that all gluten-free food segments saw higher sales from 2013-2014. Snacks, bakery and cereal products − traditionally rich in gluten − saw the most significant product launches, and the snacks segment fared the best.
"Overall, the gluten-free food market continues to thrive off of those who must maintain a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, as well as those who perceive gluten-free foods to be healthier or more natural," says Amanda Topper, a food analyst at Mintel. "The category will continue to grow in the near term, especially as FDA regulations make it easier for consumers to purchase gluten-free products and trust the manufacturers who make them. Despite strong growth over the last few years, there is still innovation opportunity, especially in food segments that typically contain gluten."
Many conventional foods are being introduced in gluten-free versions, which is allowing the gluten-free category to become more mainstream and changing the perception that all gluten-free foods are bland and boring. Nutritional levels of many gluten-free products have been lacking overall, but that too, is also improving.
Chex cereals from General Mills are gluten-free, have plenty of flavor and are fortified with vitamins and minerals to deliver 25 percent of the daily dose of five B vitamins and half a day’s worth of iron and folic acid. General Mills recently announced that Cheerios and Lucky Charms would soon be available in gluten-free versions.
Bread lovers can enjoy Udi’s Gluten Free Foods' tasty whole-grain bagels, which are made from brown rice flour, teff flour and flax seed meal. They have 3g of fiber and an impressive 7g of protein (however they incorporate more than 470mg of sodium). One of the top gluten-free bakery brands in the country, Boulder, Colo.-based Udi's was the first bakery to launch gluten-free buns nationally at retail.
One of its most popular customer requests is for bread containing more fiber and ancient grains. Udi's Ancient Grains Breads contain a balance of nutrients and vitamins and feature earthy varieties like Millet-Chia and Omega-Salba. Millet and Salba contain 6g of fiber per serving and more than 350 mg of Omega 3, 6 and 9. “One of Udi’s goals is to consistently provide gluten-free, nutritionally based products to our consumers that continue to taste like the conventional product,” states Denise Sirovatka, marketing vice president.