More companies are offering gluten-free items or looking into the feasibility of adding gluten-free products as line extensions. But even as the category continues to experience growth and interest, questions remain as to how much longer the gluten-free trend may sustain an upward trajectory.

Natural channel sales of labeled gluten-free products increased 40%, to $163.1 million in the 52-week period ended in June 2010 from $116.5 million for the 52 weeks ended in June 2008, according to Mintel International Group, Chicago. Those labeled products include snacks, such as pretzels, crackers, cookies and bars; baking mixes and flours; hot and cold cereals; baked goods; and pastas and pizza.

“Across the board, labeled gluten-free sub-segment sales were strong, all growing more than 30% from 2008-10,” according to Mintel. “The growing cachet of gluten-free drove some growth, as did the ability of manufacturers to capitalize on unmet demand by introducing products consumers wanted.”

Globally, the gluten-free category continues to do well as the number of new product introductions continues to rise. The United Kingdom and Brazil had some of the highest figures for new product launches marketed as gluten-free during the first three quarters of 2010, according to data from Innova Market Insights.

“Awareness of the gluten-free category has increased in the last two to three years and more companies are interested in launching gluten-free products to meet this growing demand,” said Elizabeth Arndt, director of research & development, ConAgra Mills, Omaha. “The growing importance of the category has resulted in new offerings that have raised the nutrition and product quality bar among gluten-free products, which is a very positive change. There’s still room for improvement, but it’s all on a positive track.”

More than 12 million Americans have food allergies and an estimated three million (less than 1% of the population) have celiac disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Another 40 million Americans are thought to have non-celiac gluten intolerance.

As incidences of food allergies and intolerances continue to rise the “free-from” category of foods manufactured to address the health issues should continue to grow, according to Mintel.

The gluten-free trend has extended beyond the traditional grain-based foods market to the value-added foods segment.

A friend who is one of those statistics following a diagnosis of celiac disease was partially the impetus for Carol Haltaman, who leads the research department at Handy International, Salisbury, Md., to recommend developing a gluten-free crab cake. Handy International is a privately-owned value-added seafood processor.

Internal discussions about developing a gluten-free crab cake began in 2009. The company’s initial hurdle was finding a bakery to manufacture the gluten-free bread that would work as part of the crab cake formulation.

The crab cakes are produced in-house, but the bread used in the recipe is produced at an off-site bakery, Ms. Haltaman said. The gluten-free bread replaces panko in the traditional recipe.

Handy International’s crab cakes are certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, and they are available in Costco club stores, Whole Foods and other retailers. The company also offers the cakes directly to consumers via the company’s web site.

Ms. Haltaman said the gluten-free bread as an ingredient and the lab testing did raise the price point of the gluten-free crab cake above that of the traditional crab cake, but it hasn’t deterred customers looking for gluten-free products.

“Most people who look for gluten-free products know it’s going to be a little more than other items,” she said. “They’re expecting that to cover some of the testing.”

Sequestering product, testing, taste and texture challenges are among the many factors that interested companies must consider before entering the gluten-free category. Dr. Arndt of ConAgra said food companies have undergone an education about what it takes to produce gluten-free food items. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, she said. For example, equipment and manufacturing steps are different.

“If you have an existing bakery and you want to offer a gluten-free s.k.u. (stock-keeping unit) or line, it is very difficult to just clean up the facility and make a gluten-free product,” she said. “If you want a product to be gluten-free certified, then you have to meet the specific standards of certification organizations for ingredients, processing and the final product. Those are challenges many bakers may not have realized.”

Also, pan bread, flour-based tortillas and pasta present manufacturing challenges for food companies trying to make gluten-free versions. For example, gluten-free pastas don’t stand up well to the rigors of processing, Dr. Arndt said.

“With pan bread, you still have a preponderance of products that are offered frozen,” she said. “The shelf life of gluten-free baked goods tends to be shorter than the wheat-based counterparts, and there are still improvements to be made in terms of texture, but there remains a desire to have a fresh gluten-free section.”

Tortillas have the same issues as bread in that staling is a factor, she added.

Market research analysts agree the gluten-free category continues to garner interest from food manufacturers and consumers. But there is debate about whether interest and demand are sustainable enough to be worth the time and resources food companies will potentially spend working through the challenges posed by gluten-free food manufacturing.

Researchers with the Hartman Group Inc., Bellevue, are doubtful. The consumer analyst group predicted that the gluten-free diet in the long term would be more reminiscent of fad diets.

Melissa Abbott, trends and culinary insights director for the Hartman Group, said that while there is much more attention being paid to the gluten-free trend, there are a number of different types of consumers who like to dabble in the gluten-free lifestyle. Also, there are many people who are self-diagnosing themselves with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, she said, and those dabblers tend not to stick with anything for more than three months.

“What we have been suggesting to clients is that if you do want to pursue gluten-free as a category — because people are looking for it, there’s no denying that — stick to foods and cultures that are inherently gluten-free but don’t necessarily call them out,” Ms. Abbott said. “The reason for that is the people who are looking for the gluten-free seal, symbol, what have you, on the front of the box, they are your one-month, two-month dieters.

“They’re not going to be sticking with it long term. Whereas if you’ve got someone truly wheat sensitive, or if you have someone who is truly celiac they know what to look for. They are reading every ingredient, they are very diligent, and they don’t need a call out on the box and in fact, that’s not going to do it for them.”

Ms. Abbott added that cuisines such as Thai or flavors from India are more likely to succeed in the gluten-free marketplace because many products included are traditionally gluten-free.

A different point of view on the gluten-free phenomenon is that the dabblers will drop out of the lifestyle, but companies will continue to make innovations in gluten-free food manufacturing and improve product quality to generate crossover appeal.

“I don’t think it’s a fad at all,” Dr. Arndt said. “There is a core of consumers who need these products. The growing selection of gluten-free foods is not like the low-carb craze was. The trend is helping to raise the bar on product quality and nutrition for consumers with celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities, and it will be a healthier category overall.

“We continue to research the category and more companies are interested. It’s really that perfect mix that results in a lot of creativity.”

Ms. Haltaman said she expects more regulations governing the gluten-free category to emerge, and a standard of identity for gluten-free products may ultimately benefit the category.

“We see more of a growth effort,” she said. “You might hear less about it down the road, but I think it’s a serious thing that people are paying attention to.”