If you’re looking for a food trend that is clearly on the rise, look no further than gluten-free products. Positioned in between organic and non-GMO in terms of attraction for the health-conscious consumer, the gluten-free label is appearing on a lot more foods and drinks, even on restaurant menus. Sales of gluten-free foods and beverages in the U.S. are expected to exceed $6.6 billion by 2017, according to Packaged Facts.
Who needs to avoid gluten?
The only people who really must avoid gluten are those who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. The FDA estimates that only 3 million people in the United States, which amounts to less than 1% of the population, have the condition that causes gluten to trigger production of antibodies that attack and damage the lining of the small intestine, interfering with the individual's ability to absorb nutrients. With that condition, gluten can contribute to a host of health problems, including osteoporosis and intestinal cancers. However, that market alone would not suffice to account for the growing demand for gluten-free products.
Perceived benefits account for the increasing demand
According to a study on the perception of gluten-free foods, the demand is primarily a product of gluten-free's healthy connotations. This idea accounted for as many as 65% of consumers that eat or used to eat gluten-free foods. A smaller percentage, 27%, were operating under the impression that gluten-free foods are conducive to weight loss.
Amanda Topper, food analyst at Mintel, observed that though there is no hard evidence to substantiate it, “the view that these foods and beverages are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts is a major driver for the market, as interest expands across both gluten-sensitive and health-conscious consumers.”
The gluten-free label according to the FDA
The FDA definition of gluten-free surprisingly doesn't require the product to be completely, 100% free of gluten. Rather, it restricts food garnered with the label in containing no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. It also allows the phrase "gluten-free" to appear on food that does not contain any of the following:
- An ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains.
- An ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten.
- An ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more ppm gluten.
Naturally gluten-free products can bear the label
The FDA allows the “gluten-free” label to brand anything naturally free of gluten, like bottled water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs. It’s unclear whether or not this decision should be factored into the projected “gluten-free” market, as a majority of beverages and a great number of foods can include that label just for the sake of marketing attention. It's important to keep this in mind when reading a statement referencing the fact that “more than 7,000 new products” were introduced with the “gluten-free” label in 2013. Some of these items may have been naturally gluten-free products choosing to promote this fact after seeing an economic incentive to do so.
New gluten-free options
There are many developments in eliminating gluten from products that normally contain it. Food suppliers have moved off the beaten path of wheat to offer grains like quinoa, millet, chia, buckwheat, and hemp in breads, granola bars, and cereals. Reflecting the restaurant industry’s response to the gluten-free trend, Panera is introducing a sprouted grain bagel in May as an alternative to whole wheat for customers. There have also been innovations in the introduction of beverages based on gluten-free malt extracts, and innovations in confectioneries. According to Innova Database, candy launches with a "'gluten-free' positioning increased by 46% in 2013 from 2012.”
In 2012, Packaged Facts gave a figure of 18% for adults who say they buy products labeled gluten-free, an increase from 15% back in 2010. At the beginning of 2014, NDP group found that 30% of adults look for gluten-free products. For those who self-identify as “health-conscious shoppers,” the percentages are even higher: 70%, with a projected rise to 80%.
With figures like that, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see more products labeled “gluten-free,” especially those that can claim that virtue with no alternation.