Understanding the gluten-free consumer
August 3, 2010
by Jeff Gelski
CHICAGO — The gluten-free food market represents a growth opportunity for manufacturers as consumers with celiac disease and other conditions increasingly seek products that are healthy, good-tasting and filling but do not feature wheat or other grain-based products on the ingredients panel, according to presenters at a session titled “The gluten-free diet: What everyone needs to know” during I.F.T. 10.
Approximately 1 in 100 adults is estimated to suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by the consumption of gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. Left untreated, celiac disease may cause illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal problems to bone disease, infertility and an increased risk of cancer.
The panel suggested food manufacturers explore using pure oats in new gluten-free products to increase the amount of fiber and improve the taste. A study by Health Canada concluded that the majority of people with celiac disease may tolerate moderate amounts of pure oats, which are a good source of dietary fiber, B-complex vitamins, iron and protein, said Shelley Case, BS, RD, author of “Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide,” and a member of the Medical Advisory boards of the Celiac Disease Foundation and Gluten Intolerance Group in the United States and the Professional Advisory Board of the Canadian Celiac Association.
Background on the current universe of consumers who avoid gluten was offered by Ms. Case. Individuals following gluten-free diets fall into four categories, beginning with those suffering from celiac disease and individuals with non-celiac gluten intolerance. A third group includes parents of autistic
children who have been following a gluten-free and casein-free diet. While there is no scientific data demonstrating that gluten avoidance helps diminish or reverse the symptoms of autism, many parents have reported positive results, she said.
A final group following the diet, Ms. Case said, is celebrities and their followers who avoid gluten to lose weight.
“This is ironic, since many non-gluten products have a high fat content,” Ms. Case said.
Expanding on the situation for those with celiac disease, Ms. Case said that despite the proliferation of new products, the challenges faced by those diagnosed with the disease are considerable.
“It is a very difficult diet,” she said. “I’ve been a nutritionist for 30 years, and it is the most difficult I’ve dealt with.”
While celiac disease afflicts roughly 1% of the population and may cause extremely serious health problems, Ms. Case said only 5% to 10% of those with the disease are thought to have been diagnosed. She noted that the disease, which inhibits the ability of the body to absorb nutrition, may adversely affect a range of organ systems and bodily functions. As a result, symptoms are manifest in widely varying ways, creating challenges for doctors trying to determine what ails their patients.
Ms. Case distinguished from celiac sufferers two other distinct conditions prompting gluten avoidance — non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is a non-auto-immune and non-allergic condition with symptoms similar to those with celiac disease, and wheat allergies, in which wheat triggers specific antibodies similar to allergies to other foods, such as eggs, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and peanuts.
As the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease increases, so will the demand for gluten-free products. U.S. retail sales of gluten-free food and beverages are expected to reach more than $2.77 billion by 2012. Besides people with celiac disease, the gluten-free food market also draws people with non-celiac gluten-sensitivity, wheat allergies and others.
Steve Taylor, Ph. D., director of the Food Allergy and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, cautioned that manufacturing true gluten-free grain products requires vigilance every step of the way. U.S. Department of Agriculture grain standards allow the same equipment to be used for wheat and oats; as a result, a study found 60% of oats were contaminated with wheat, he said.
“If you wish to make gluten-free foods, obviously you have to start with gluten-free ingredients, and that’s easier to say than to do,” he said.