The gluten-free quandary

by Allison Gibeson
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The availability of gluten-free products may be mainstream, but with only 1% of U.S. consumers actually having celiac disease, one expert believes the grain-based foods industry needs to step up efforts to educate consumers about the reality of the diet.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, an Oregon-based market research firm, attributed celebrity endorsements, mistaken perceptions of weight loss and spillover effect from other low-carbohydrate diets to the popularity. But even the Food and Drug Administration states on its web site there is no nutritional advantage for those without celiac disease to go gluten-free and it is not meant to be a diet craze.
“Consumers are looking for ways to be healthier and gravitating to whatever they see … but it’s not always driven from a dietitian or a medical perspective,” said Beth Peta, marketing manager for Cargill, Minneapolis.

Some growth in the diet may be seen from those who use the diet for other medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and autism, said Beckee Moreland, director of gluten-free industry initiatives for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. She also said some doctors have recommended breastfeeding mothers use the diet.

Through it all, the U.S. market grew to $6.2 billion in sales during 2011 according to SPINS, Ms. Moreland said. Some growth is from naturally gluten-free products being labeled as such, but she said the introduction of major manufacturers to the market in recent years has been a big change as well as the introduction of gluten-free concession stands at sporting arenas. She added that there has been an effort to incorporate more nutrition, such as ancient grains, into the products.

“There is a lot of mis-information about the diet,” Ms. Moreland said. “We have people say, ‘It’s a healthy diet.’ Well, it can be a healthy diet if you focus on the fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins, beans and legumes. But when you start incorporating a lot of the gluten-free alternative products … they are much higher in fat, sodium and sugar.”

Dom Alcocer, marketing manager of new ventures at General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, said research provided through the company’s partnership with the University of Maryland figures in addition to the 1% of the population with celiac disease, 6% of Americans have some form of gluten sensitivity and another 5% to 8% of consumers are looking for gluten-free products for various reasons.

General Mills has a gluten-free web site,, with products, recipes, medical advice, coupons, a blog and more for those trying to adhere to the diet. Mr. Alcocer said more than 100,000 consumers are signed up for the accompanying newsletters and to interact with them on Facebook. A major part of the impetus for such an effort was large volumes of consumer questions and requests. The company said it has more than 300 gluten-free products.

“We are encouraged by the fact that gluten-free diets have been attempted and adopted by as many as 8% of Americans for whatever reasons they chose, some of them based in science and some of them based in personal experience, but it has given us a great opportunity to reach more consumers,”
Mr. Alcocer said.

Ms. Peta said having in-creased demand for the prod-ucts among a broader consumer base has improved the taste and breadth of the products.

Matt Gennrich, a food scien-tist with Cargill, said more gluten-free products are possible through looking at starches used to replace wheat — commonly rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch and sorghum flours. Yet Ms. Moreland said the difficulty comes in that there is no cup-for-cup equivalent for wheat and gluten-based ingredients.

Ms. Badaracco said it’s time for the grain-based foods industry to let its voice be heard on this diet so consumers understand it is not healthier for those without celiac disease. Ms. Badaracco said the popularity of the diet started with the Atkins diet through the vilifying of carbohydrates and the association of carbohydrates with obesity. While the specific diets have changed, the concept has lingered, she said.
“The whole grain is a rock star in the world of health research,” Ms. Badaracco said. “In the world of diet it’s a villain, which is quite ironic because there are absolutely no health studies to support that it is a villain.”

She also said many consumers are self-diagnosing with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and not getting proper medical answers. She said if someone goes gluten-free and feels better, it doesn’t prove anything because it may have been the addition of more fruits and vegetables and less junk food that caused the improvement.

Ms. Badaracco also said some consumers mistake the effects of gluten and carbo-hydrates with raising blood insulin levels, but she said this is unfounded because it’s a normal metabolic process that presents no problem for those who do not already have diabetes.

She said grains groups properly educating consumers through effective advertising messaging may clear up consumer misunderstandings. Ms. Badaracco said the grain groups are not being heard well enough on the gluten-free issue, and she encouraged them to use more messaging to reach consumers. She said this worked well with educating consumers that high-fructose corn syrup is just as safe as regular sugar, and now consumer concerns about HFCS have been greatly reduced.

“Nobody is doing that with gluten-free and wheat, barley and rye,” Ms. Badaracco said. “Why aren’t there commercials somewhere?”

Consumers on a gluten-free diet are most likely going to be missing B vitamins and folic acid, which have been linked to preventing birth defects, including spina bifida, Ms. Badaracco said. She said gluten-free consumers also miss many opportunities for fiber.

One of the biggest oppor-tunities in gluten-free in the future is enriched and fortified products as those with celiac disease are often missing key nutrients, such as fiber, Ms. Peta said.

According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, there were 1,968 new products labeled gluten-free introduced in 2011, up slightly from 1,936 in 2010.

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