Compiled by Warren Beaumont

Major researchers such as SPINS Inc, Mintel UK and Packaged Facts point to a major expansion in gluten-free, allergy-free and free-from foods as food allergies, gluten-intolerance and celiac disease, and diabetes are on the rise.

Food allergy incidence has been growing in the EU, with around 3.9 per cent of children suffering from an allergy and 3-5% in children and adults in the USA. Celiac disease has been reported as being diagnosed in a one in a hundred people in the USA and Australia. The Canadian Celiac Association says that one in every 133 Canadians suffers from gluten intolerance and the Quebec-based Scientific Laboratory for Food Intolerance reports that 50 percent of Canadians suffer from an inability to properly digest certain foods.

Sales of gluten–free foods and beverages in the United States market reached an estimated $2.6 billion in retail sales in 2010, while gluten-free products enjoyed a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30% over the 2006–2010 period, according to Gluten–Free Foods and Beverages in the U.S., 3rd edition by market research publisher Packaged Facts in February 2011.

Once regarded as a niche product that was only of interest to people who couldn’t tolerate wheat, gluten–free foods and beverages have quickly transformed into a mainstream sensation, embraced by consumers both out of necessity and as a personal choice toward achieving a healthier way to live, according to the report.

"People with celiac disease have been the natural drivers of the gluten free market," said Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts. "However, there is evidence suggested that eliminating gluten from the diet may relieve autism in some children and adult rheumatoid arthritis. Add to that the healthy ‘aura’ some consumers have attached to gluten–free products and you create a demand for these foods and beverages that mainstream food manufacturers and retailers are increasingly happy to satisfy." Packaged Facts predicts that growth will continue over the next five years, as the market approaches $6 billion in 2015.

General Mills’ transformation of its popular Rice Chex cereal into a gluten–free product without changing the taste–molasses was substituted for barely–based sweetener–stands as a milestone indicator of the breadth of impact gluten–free products are having on mainstream consciousness. As of November 2010, General Mills— which has acquired the Larabar brand of gluten free nutrition bars—claims to offer 250 gluten–free products, including five varieties of Chex and numerous products under the Betty Crocker and Bisquick brands.
Another striking indication of the mainstreaming trend is the notable shift in the retail distribution of gluten–free products from specialty stores to chains. The surge in the sales and number of dedicated gluten–free products carried by the supermarkets and mass merchandisers demonstrates that gluten–free is becoming, as one marketer interviewed by Packaged Facts in the report states, "just a regular grocery item."

Gluten –free products have been also a venue to attract new consumers to organic certified foods. “When we imported from the first order of Italian made Isolabio cereal drinks, we did not know the number of celiac and people with other food allergies was so high in Peru”, says Sonia Alvarez of Peruvian gourmet foods importer ADEIMPEX. “More than being organic, people look for Isolabio, because its line is gluten-free and delicious, but they welcome the certification”.

SPINS Inc, a United States-based market research firm for the Natural Products Industry, said in late January that the gluten-free trend shows no signs of slowing down over the next year. “On the contrary, we are seeing the trend expand as gluten free products are also addressing sensitivity to other common food allergens such as soy, dairy and corn,” SPINS said. “Third party certification is vital for the continued growth and success for gluten free and allergen free products, particularly because the problems cross contamination could cause for consumers and manufacturers are potentially devastating. Over the next year we expect to see an increase in the number of allergen free dedicated manufacturer facilities as a result of the stringent testing required by third party certifiers.”