Gotta Have Gluten-Free
This $1.56 billion market is not only growing due to the rise in people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease, it is expanding to consumers wanting to eat healthier, better-for-digestion foods. Here, industry analysts and top retailers, manufacturers and restaurateurs talk about the benefits and challenges of selling gluten-free foods.
As recently as five years ago, the gluten-free offerings in grocery stores were less than inspiring. Often dense, grainy and lacking in nutrients, they left much to be desired and were scarce on store shelves. Fortunately, thanks to forward-thinking specialty manufacturers and retailers, the terrain has changed dramatically.
Fueling the demand is an increase in people being diagnosed with a gluten intolerance or even more serious, diagnosed with celiac disease—an autoimmune disease that adversely affects the small intestine. Today, there are upwards of three million Americans who can’t eat gluten from wheat, rye or barley. It’s become a popular topic on national television shows, like Oprah, The View and Top Chef and is included in an increasing number of cookbooks. Even mainstream purveyors are making their mark, with food vendor Aramark opening a gluten-free concession stand at Coors Field in Denver, and grocers like King’s and Wegmans providing large gluten-free sections.
Gluten-free is poised to be a long-standing need that will have substantial impact on the trade’s ability to increase customer loyalty and profits. But to take advantage of the market, merchants, suppliers and foodservice operators will need to educate themselves and their staff on this complex dietary issue. With the gluten-free market growing at an average annual rate of 28 percent since 2004—from $580 million in 2004 to $1.56 billion last year, according to recent research by Packaged Facts—it’s time to jump on board.
The gluten-free market, which once targeted only those suffering from celiac disease, is now appealing to a much larger audience. Research company The Hartman Group, Bellevue Wash., notes that some marketers believe as many as 15 percent to 25 percent of the U.S. population is interested in gluten-free products, with digestive health, nutritional value and help in losing weight being the top three reasons why. Cameo Edwards, owner of the wholesale gluten-free boutique bakery Crave in San Francisco, agrees. “In the Bay area and Pacific Northwest, people are gravitating toward alternative baking choices,” she notes. “People who are readers of ingredient labels like the products. They’re really for people who are health conscious.”
While there is broadening appeal, it is good to remember that there is a core group of shoppers, celiacs, who are completely committed to purchasing gluten-free products. These consumers will purchase these foods over other products because this diet provides their only relief. Celiac disease, considered by some to be the most under-diagnosed common disease today, can, if left untreated, lead to malnutrition because the sufferer doesn’t absorb nutrients properly. It can also lead to other autoimmune disorders. Americans first started being diagnosed as celiacs in the 1940s, and The Joy of Cooking has featured gluten-free recipes since 1975. But not until the past five years have the terms “celiacs,” and “gluten-free” resonated with the general population, retailers and manufacturers.
Hiller’s Markets, a family-owned chain of independent stores in Michigan and a pioneer in the sale of gluten-free products, carries more than 5,000 gluten-free items, says Jim Hiller, owner. Hiller started his gluten-free section more than nine years ago. He remembers, “One Sunday morning, I came into our Ann Arbor store and two women approached me and said, ‘we both have celiac disease and we need gluten-free products.’” This sparked him to do research, even going as far as attending meetings of a local celiac group to learn more, and within a month he had 200 gluten-free products in his store. “We became the place to go in the Midwest, and maybe the nation, for gluten- and casein-free products.” Within every section of Hiller’s stores are dedicated gluten-free areas. “And I have two full-time gluten-free buyers,” he notes.
Hiller adds, “The growth has been the usual change that we see in the food business. At first we had a cottage industry but now see large, multi-national companies producing gluten-free products.” Big retailers have also caught on, with companies like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market creating gluten-free sections.
Making Gluten-Free Delicious
According to the research firm Mintel International, Chicago, the number of newly introduced gluten-free products has skyrocketed from about 135 in 2003 to 832 new launches in 2008. The company forecasts steady 15 percent to 25 percent growth in gluten-free product sales in the future. This growth is key in traditionally wheat-based categories.
“If you have celiac disease, you really miss bread,” says Brenda vanDuinkerken, president of Duinkerken Foods Inc., Prince Edward Island, Canada, who created a specialty line of gluten-free baking mixes after being diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994.
The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG), in partnership with TastesLikeRealFood.com, conducted a survey of 700 gluten-free shoppers nationwide and found that 71 percent of respondents felt that it was hard to find good-tasting gluten-free foods. One of the challenges for manufacturers is that making a tasty gluten-free product is tricky. “When you bake gluten-free, the principles that apply to normal baking don’t apply anymore. Gluten binds. So you have to replace that,” explains vanDuinkerken. Her secret to success was putting a lot of time into her recipes and working with a team of dieticians and food scientists to perfect them. The pre-mix they created is the base for each of her mixes, from waffles to pizza crust.
Creating a sophisticated line of baked goods “took a lot of experimentation,” says Edwards, owner of Crave. “I am extremely picky and sensitive to the grainy dense texture that many gluten-free products have.”
French Meadow Bakery, a Minnesota-based company that launched a gluten-free line of baked goods three years ago, has pleased customers with its newest addition, the tortilla. “We knew there was a demand for an authentic tasting product, to be on par with the traditional flour tortilla. The challenge was to use the gluten-free grains and flours to create a blend that had the high quality to use the product in traditional applications, such as a wrap or quesadilla,” says Beth Naffziger, marketing manager.
Although baked goods are what celiacs may miss the most, the gluten-free category is overflowing with other items ranging from cookies and pretzels to burritos, tortillas, soup and beer. And, notes Melissa Abbott, trends & culinary insights manager of The Hartman Group, “We’re seeing more ethnic products that are naturally gluten-free fill a void, like poppadom, an Indian snack cracker made with bean flour.”
Retailers Reach Out
Consumers looking for gluten-free products first turn to their local specialty retailers. According to research by Packaged Facts, specialty marketers still dominate gluten-free food and beverages but health/natural foods markets and supermarket private-label brands have been growing. In fact, supermarket giant
Wegmans introduced more gluten-free products last year than any other retailer.
Ellen Joy, buyer at Roots Markets, a two-store retailer in Olney and Clarksville, Md., notes, “We started a small section and it grew because of the people who realized there was a place for them to go. People would bring friends from out of town so they could get these products.” To market the retailer’s more than 2,000 gluten-free items, Joy runs special tours on Saturdays. “I show people not only the gluten-free aisle but where they’ll find gluten-free items in the frozen section.”
Hiller of Hiller’s Markets says, “For many small retailers, the learning curve is steep in this category and depending upon your type of store, it might not make sense. But because I operate in high-income, well-educated neighborhoods, where they’re likely receiving top-quality medical care, it works.” He emphasizes, “From my standpoint, I see having a full line of gluten-free products as intrinsic to a grocery operator who wants to see themselves as a specialty retailer.”
Assessing the Risks and Challenges
Addressing the needs of a gluten-intolerant population shows a level of customer service that is repaid in return business. Chef Fred Neuville of Fat Hen on Johns Island near Charleston, S.C., says, “On my menu, I already have ten items that are gluten-free. People are appreciative and surprised.”
Neuville assures that it is doable to implement a gluten-free menu for customers, but notes that, across the board, cross contamination is a huge concern. “It’s a serious issue,” he says. For example, his crab cakes are naturally gluten-free, but the fries that come with them are not. His solution: “We have a fryer set aside to use when making fries for people with gluten intolerance.” Neuville notes, “When someone comes in and has an allergy to nuts or gluten, we take that seriously.”
Manufacturers have their own set of challenges, including how ingredients are grown. For example, items like oats are tricky. If they’ve been grown in a field where wheat has been grown, they will be contaminated as far as celiacs are concerned. One way to eliminate some of the cross contamination concerns on the manufacturing side is to have a dedicated gluten-free facility. Bob’s Red Mill, Milwaukie, Ore., a leader in the gluten-free category for 15 years, stone grinds and packages its gluten-free products in a dedicated 23,000-square-foot manufacturing and packaging facility. And to give its customers every assurance of safety, the company performs batch testing to confirm the absence of gluten.
Many retailers work with specifically gluten-free bakeries and other suppliers to alleviate cross contamination worries and still provide fresh baked products. Roots sells fresh gluten-free baked goods, provided by three local gluten-free storefront bakeries. To market these fresh items, the bakeries come in on Saturdays and do samplings. In addition, the retailer hosts gluten-free events a couple of times a year, all of which include samplings of only gluten-free products and draw huge crowds, explains Joy.
The bulk of Edwards’ business at Crave is wholesale. “We sell to stores in eight states, recently adding Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Kansas,” she notes. Her company allows retailers to carry gluten-free products without having to create a gluten-free baking zone. “It’s difficult for a bakery within a grocery store to make their own gluten-free products. I suggest people go with a trusted, known wholesale company that customers feel comfortable with,” she says.
Retailers and manufacturers are proving that the gluten-intolerant population doesn’t have to give up on good food to stay healthy. For instance, the favorite gluten-free dish on Neuville’s menu is local grouper over butter beans cooked with ham hocks and garnished with pearl onions, tomatoes and bacon. “I make sure they don’t feel like they’re missing out on anything,” he says.
“We have so many items to let you live the lifestyle you choose. If you’re gluten intolerant and need to have lasagna, I need to make it possible,” says Hiller. “I must get 20 to 30 letters a month thanking me.”
Abbott of The Hartman Groups concludes, “No matter what, offering gluten-free products will improve customer loyalty and show that you care about your customers, the benefits of which could last decades.” |SFM|
Denise Shoukas is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.
Here are some of the hundreds of gluten-free products available.
Aunt Gussie’s Cookies & Crackers: Gluten-free and spelt cookies, gluten-free focaccia bread in Kalamata Olive and Rosemary flavors and gluten-free English muffins in Original and Cinnamon Raisin; auntgussies.com.
Culinary Collective: Zocalo Gourmet brand line of gluten-free flours, including Purple Corn (right), Sweet Potato, Amaranth, Yacon, Maca and Lima Bean; culinarycollective.com.
Frontier Soups: 27 gluten-free soup mixes include Hearty Meals Illinois Prairie and Corn Chowder and the Homemade In Minutes South of the Border Tortilla Soup; frontiersoups.com.
Glutenfreeda’s Wheat Free Gluten Free Burrito: Touted as “the world’s first gluten-free burrito” and made with gluten-free organic flour tortillas. It comes in Vegetarian Bean & Cheese, Chicken & Cheese, Vegetarian and Dairy Free and Breakfast varieties; glutenfreeda.com.
Glutino USA: Full line of frozen entrées, baking mixes, cookies, candy, pretzels and other snacks under the Glutino and Gluten-Free Pantry brands; glutino.com.
Dr. Lucy’s: Line of chocolate chip, oatmeal, sugar and cinnamon cookies for people with food allergies and other intolerances; drlucys.com.
Lucini® Italia Everyday™: Cinque é Cinque custom-milled, chickpea flour-based mix that makes a savory chickpea focaccia; lucini.com.
Mary’s Gone Crackers: Organic Seed Crackers that are wheat-free, gluten-free and organic; made of organic whole-grain brown rice, organic quinoa, organic flax seeds and organic brown sesame seeds, with no added fat; marysgonecrackers.com.
Pamela’s Products: Variety of gluten-free baked goods and mixes (left). Gluten Free Bread Mix can be used for pizza crust and dinner rolls; pamelasproducts.com.
Ritrovo® Selections™: Biaitalia Organic Gluten-Free Couscous, sourced from the provine of Trapani in Sicily and Casca in Sardegna; ritrovo.com.
San Gennaro Foods: Gluten-free varieties of its polenta and grits; polenta.net.
Wild Thymes Farm Inc.: New line of gluten-free condiments, including Indian Vindaloo Curry Dipping Sauce, Cranberry Raspberry Sauce, Passion Fruit Salad Refresher and Tuscan Tomato Basil Vinaigrette; wildthymes.com.
Wing-Time: Naturally gluten-free line of barbecue sauces, including Mild, Medium, Hot, Super Hot, Garlic and Garlic with Parmesan; wingtime.com.
Xan Confections: Artisan gluten-free chocolates and caramels, including the Saintly Sins Collection and the Jewel Collection; xanconfections.com.
A NEW LOOK AT LABELING
Gluten, a thickening agent and filler in everything from ketchup to vitamins, is not always listed as an ingredient on a nutrition label, which makes finding gluten-free foods challenging for shoppers.
A solution may be the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposal for a standardized definition for the term “gluten-free.” Bob’s Red Mill, an Oregon-based pioneering manufacturer of gluten-free products, participated with the FDA in its mission to define the standards. Once the FDA label is approved, some researchers think it will be the point after which the food market explodes with gluten-free products.
Currently, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) provides an independent service to supervise gluten-free food production according to a consistent, defined, science-based standard that is confirmed by field inspections, in order to achieve heightened consumer confidence and safety. One of the first specialty food companies to seek GFCO certification was Nelsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan, Ill.
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