Broad Street Licensing Group Food News

Gluten-Free: More than a Fad?

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[1]), 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).[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

[1] Similar proteins in barley, rye and malt produce the same or similar problems.

[2] 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.

[3] Source: natural-products industry market & research consulting firm Spins. ConAgra Mills estimates the market as closer to $500MM ($486MM).

[4] The suggested threshold for a US standard for gluten-free (none currently exists).

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