The buzz around the now-failed artificial sweetener stevia seems to have been replaced in the food media by a feeding frenzy over gluten-free.
While some experts question the extent of celiac disease (an auto-immune condition preventing digestion of gluten, a key protein in wheat), awareness of the disease has been snowballing. First estimates were 1% of Americans had the disease, but the most recent study claims 6% or 18MM Americans (one in 133) have the condition with equal or greater occurrence in Europe). Those with the condition can’t eat bread or drink most beer (made from barley), for example, without often severe side-effects.
As with other food allergies, young people seem to have a greater incidence (5x) than a generation ago. Scientists have no explanation for this, with theories blaming overuse of antibiotics and antacids or pathogens as yet unidentified. There is even concern that up to 30% of Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. That means they might not develop the persistent anemia and weight-loss of full-blown celiac disease, yet experience gas, bloating and diarrhea because their gut can’t digest gluten.
Whatever the exact numbers, there’s no doubt the gluten-free market, estimated at $6.3bn, is scorching and growing at 33-37% annually. The many smaller players include Glutino, Enjoy Life, Bob’s Red Mill, Udi’s Gluten Free, and the venerable Amy’s Kitchen. But the hands-down leader turns out to be (wheat) cereal-maker General Mills, owner of Cheerios, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury Doughboy (presumably made from wheat dough). The company has 300 products currently sporting gluten-free labels, five Chex cereals made without wheat products, and Betty Crocker dessert, cake, brownie & pancake mixes made with alternative flours and flavoring (the “toasted” accents in many foods, including grill marks are made from a malt mixture containing gluten). Substitute grains include rice, sorghum and tapioca flours, with years of research and plain, old trial-and-error going into new formulations.
GM purchased the Chex brand from Ralcorp back in 1996, and the move is looking better than ever.
Other companies are now entering the gluten-free market, including AB-InBev’s Redbridge beer, Kellogg’s gluten-free Rice Krispies, as well as companies like Frito-Lay and Post Foods who are putting “gluten-free” labels on products that naturally have no wheat, barley, rye or oats in them, or those with fewer than 20 parts per million.
 Similar proteins in barley, rye and malt produce the same or similar problems.
 Source: Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk and not-at-risk groups in the United States: a large multicenter study from the Center for Celiac Research, University of Maryland School of Medicine (available here). Subjects had blood tests that turned up antibodies to wheat proteins.
 Source: natural-products industry market & research consulting firm Spins. ConAgra Mills estimates the market as closer to $500MM ($486MM).
 The suggested threshold for a US standard for gluten-free (none currently exists).