The US gluten-free market has soared in recent years, according to a new report, and is likely to receive another significant boost as the nation's mega food firms jump on the bandwagon after the FDA definition of 'gluten-free' is established in 2008.
Published by Packaged Facts, the new report reveals that the market for gluten-free foods and beverages in the US currently stands at almost $700m, and is due to reach around $1.7bn by 2010.
Demand for gluten-free products has surged in recent years on the back of an increased diagnosis of celiac disease. This is characterized by an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that contributes to the viscosity of baked products.
According to the latest figures, around three million Americans, a little less than 1 percent of the population, currently suffer from gluten intolerance, although estimates suggest that 97 percent of celiac sufferers remain undiagnosed and go untreated.
Indeed, it is estimated that the number of known sufferers of celiac disease will increase worldwide by a factor of 10 during the next few years, findings that present an opportunity for the development and marketing of gluten-free foods, said Packaged Facts.
Most gluten-free products are alternatives to traditional grain-based goods, including bakery products, pasta and cereals. These are made with alternative grains and flours, such as rice, corn, amaranth and quinoa.
In 2001, the market for gluten-free products was valued at $210m, and has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 27 percent since then, to reach $696.4m in 2006. The market is estimated to continue to grow at 25 percent per year until 2010.
But despite the strong performance of this sector, and the opportunities it entails, major food marketers have largely not entered the market as yet. According to Packaged Facts, this is because they are reluctant to invest in research and product development until fixed regulations for gluten-free are in place.
"It is these mega-marketers that have in recent years become the target of consumer activist groups and FDA policy informers, and, for the most part, these companies have learned to proceed more cautiously in such areas," said the market researcher.
"Once FDA establishes regulations for use of the term gluten free, it is very likely that the mega food marketers of the world will jump on the gluten-free bandwagon," it added.
The FDA is required to propose a regulation by August 2006, and to issue a final regulation by August 2008, to define the term 'gluten-free' for voluntary use in food labeling.
For the time being, the majority of gluten-free products- around 40 percent- are sold in health and natural food stores, such as GNC, Whole Foods and Wild Oats. Some 20 percent of sales in 2006 occurred through specialty food website or catalog purchases, with mainstream supermarkets coming in third with a 14 percent share of sales.
And although these products are largely bought by celiac sufferers, very often the entire family of a celiac will switch to gluten-free products primarily to avoid buying different versions of the same goods, but also as a preventative step- as celiac disease is known to be hereditary.
There are also some consumers who avoid gluten because of a perceived belief of intolerance, and others who are migrating to the market from organic and natural foods and other segments. This shift- consisting mostly of white, middle-to upper-class consumers- is being driven by the belief that certain major allergens and food components also play a role in exacerbating a wide range of other health conditions, from migraine to menstruation.
Some consumers also opt for gluten-free in the hope of preventing their young or unborn children from developing food allergies. But this remains a luxury of choice available only to those able to afford it, said Packaged Facts.
Indeed, the high cost of foods free from gluten prevents many celiac sufferers from adhering precisely to their restricted diet, while most diagnosed celiacs are largely white, educated and at lest middle-class- the group of citizens most likely to have access to decent healthcare and to be able to afford the higher cost of the products that comprise this market.
Celiac disease is also primarily restricted to North American and European populations, where wheat is a staple food, but is infrequent among native descendants of China and Japan and those with an African-Caribbean background where wheat is not as widely consumed.