Interest in gluten-free diets has boomed in recent years, but gluten-free food manufacturers should focus on appealing to those consumers with celiac disease if they want to ensure longevity in the marketplace, said registered dietitian and gluten free nutrition expert Shelley Case speaking at the recent Natural Products Expo West event in Anaheim, California.
She said that about one percent of the population is interested in gluten-free foods because they have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder with symptoms that are triggered by consumption of gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley and spelt.
Research suggests that about 0.1 percent of the population has a wheat allergy, while up to six percent may have some kind of gluten sensitivity. However, the majority of gluten-free food consumers – about 15 percent of the population – are eating gluten-free foods for other reasons, such as a perception that they could help with weight loss, or relieve the symptoms of ADHD or autism, Case said.
“This is the group that’s going to shift,” she said. “…Celiac disease is definitely increasing and we are going to see it more and more as more people get diagnosed.”
‘No test to zero’
Case said that there is no one global definition for ‘gluten free’, but in the United States it is generally considered to be less than 20 parts per million (ppm).
The lowest amount of gluten that can be tested and quantified with a number is 5ppm, she said, although it is possible to detect gluten at 3ppm.
“We can’t test to zero,” she said. “For manufacturers, I would suggest aiming for as low as possible…You need to know how much gluten is in a food product in parts per million and you need to know how much of that product a consumer is going to eat.”
Case explained that there is a lot of debate about how much gluten a person with celiac disease can safely consume in the long term.
“One study saw problems if people ate more than 50mg of gluten per day. But some people started reacting at as low as 10mg per day,” she said. “The safe area is under 20ppm, so that consumers can eat large amounts of gluten free products without having any problems.”
This variation is why Case recommends food makers to take gluten as low as possible in their products.
“If you can convince people that you are making good products that are safe products then you will have a loyal customer for life,” she said.
Case added that many celiac diets are low in nutrients, particularly fiber and iron, as manufacturers have often relied on combinations of rice flour, corn starch, potato starch and tapioca starch for gluten free formulations. She urged manufacturers to move beyond these relatively nutrient-poor ingredients toward other, more nutrient-rich ingredients, such as mesquite flour, millet, nut flours, pulse flours, sorghum, soy, and teff.