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Gluten-Free Foods Paying Off Big

Heesun Wee|Special to CNBC.com
Friday, 20 May 2011 | 2:38 PM ET

Among the crowded ranks of healthy food trends — quinoa, farm-to-table, whole whole grains — one food category is growing into a genuine, industry juggernaut: gluten-free.

Gluten-free Rice Chex and Arrowroot Cookies marked Gluten-Free. From a Safeway store in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Washington Post | Getty Images
Gluten-free Rice Chex and Arrowroot Cookies marked Gluten-Free. From a Safeway store in Bethesda, Maryland.

Once confined to specialty health stores and bakeries, the category is fast becoming mainstream, with more gluten-free foods available at more retailers. Subway is road-testing a gluten-free brownie and roll for sandwiches at select Texas restaurants, with plans for a more testing in an Oregon city.

General Millshas expanded their line of gluten-free foods to include boxed cereals, such as Chex.

P.F. Chang's China Bistrooffers an extensive gluten-free menu.

Whole Foods Markethas a wide spectrum of packaged gluten-free products, including 30 varieties of baked goods made at a gluten-free facility in North Carolina, and then shipped across the country.

And the variety is expanding beyond baked goods and pasta, usually the most relevant gluten-free categories. Retailers sell baby food, condiments, desserts, pizza, and seafood entrees, all without gluten.

"More food companies are jumping on the bandwagon to label foods gluten-free. There's a groundswell," says Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, a nonprofit group that supports people with gluten-related disorders including celiac disease. "When the low-carb fad died, this was the new product trend —the gluten-free market."

Growing Category

Gluten-free ingredients can be pricey — Kupper estimates a gluten-free product can cost two- to three-times more than regular items — but that has yet to dent their growth.

In 2010, gluten-free foods racked up $2.5 billion in global sales, accounting for more than a quarter of all food-intolerance purchases, according to Euromonitor International.

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Global sales are up 92 percent since 2005 and are forecast to hit $3.4 billion by 2015. In the U.S., sales reached $1.2 billion last year, more than double that of five years ago. Euromonitor is forecasting $1.7 billion in sales by 2015.

General Mills, for example, offers more than 300 gluten-free products including yogurt, fruit snacks, desserts and soups. The consumer foods giant recently unveiled five gluten-free varieties of Chex cereal.

This follows the successful launch of its gluten-free dessert and pancake mixes, including its Betty Crocker and Bisquick brands, beginning in 2009.

"In just a few months we got 11,000 calls and 98 percent were positive," says Dom Alcocer, marketing manager for General Mills.

Whole Foods' portfolio of gluten-free goods has more than doubled during the past five years -- both in terms of the number of brands and number of individuals products offered by those brands.

In 2004, the company opened a Gluten Free Bakehouse in Morrisville, N.C. that's dedicated to making baked goods.

Healthy Business - A CNBC Special Report
Healthy Business - A CNBC Special Report

"Customers can be very loyal when they find something they're happy with," says Lee Tobin, team leader and founder of Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse.

The supermarket chain is also considering developing more in-house, gluten-free foods.

Breaking It Down

About one out of every 133 Americans, or 2.8 million, suffers from celiac disease. People affected are unable to eat foods with gluten, the storage proteins found in wheat, rye and barley.

These proteins, or gluten, for example, give bread its structure. Celiac disease sufferers produce antibodies that attack the intestine. Left undiagnosed and untreated, the disease can lead to other auto-immune disorders as well as osteoporosis and infertility. For now the only cure is to avoid gluten.

What food manufacturers are savvy to is the climbing rate of the disease — and new research that shows gluten sensitivity can occur even in people who do not have celiac disease.

"More and more companies are looking to get into this arena," says Kupper of the gluten intolerance group.

Celiac cases are rising, particularly in the elderly, according to an October 2010 study by the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. About six percent of the U.S. population, or 18 million people, suffer from gluten insensitivity, according to the research center.

Common symptoms can include abdominal pain like irritable bowel movements, fatigue, headaches, "foggy mind" or tingling in the extremities.

“The epidemic of food-related ailments witnessed during the past 30 to 50 years is most likely due to environmental changes caused by humankind, says Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the center, who cites changes in the food supply, such as "an increase in the volume of wheat in the diet."

Customers buy fish on sale at a stall during the new year's first auction at the Tsukiji fish market on January 5, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. The market handles approx 2,888 tons of fish a day generating over 2.8 billion yen.
Getty Images
Customers buy fish on sale at a stall during the new year's first auction at the Tsukiji fish market on January 5, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. The market handles approx 2,888 tons of fish a day generating over 2.8 billion yen.

Food Fad Or Health Threat?

It's tempting to dismiss the explosion of gluten-free items as a food fad; experts, however, say it is not a dietary choice but a necessity for those suffering from gluten-related disorders.

"They are doing it because they are allergic to the ingredients," says Greg Piazzi, director of culinary operations for P.F. Chang's.

The restaurant chain, which began offering seven gluten-free entrees in 2002, now offers an extensive menu of around 25 dishes at all of its 201 U.S. restaurants.

A key hurdle for the bistro, which offers Chinese-inspired cuisine, was sourcing and incorporating wheat-free soy sauce into its dishes, such as Mongolian beef and lettuce wraps.

"You're going to see a heavier push into gluten free in the next five years," Piazzi says.

Other restaurants with gluten-free entrees include Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.

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Garlic Jim's offers a gluten-free menu of pizzas and toppings at 28 outlets on the West Coast and in Denver.

Kellogg will debut a gluten-free Rice Krispies cereal, made with brown rice, in June.

Growth Drivers

Better food labeling is a key reason why more retailers —and individual consumers — have been able to source ingredients and take better control in the kitchen. In 2002, gluten-free labels were almost nonexistent, recalls Piazzi.

In 2007, the FDA issued a proposed rule on gluten-free food labeling. A final rule has yet to be released.

Healthy Business - A CNBC Special Report
Healthy Business - A CNBC Special Report

Another is training. Because even trace amounts of flour can mean trouble for sufferers of gluten-related disorders, kitchens with consistent gluten-free products boast exacting food- preparation practices, if not separate gluten-free kitchens.

P.F. Chang's conducts gluten-free "fire drills," practicing the prepping of gluten-free dishes from customer order through food prep to the table.

At select Subway restaurants in Texas, a gluten-free sandwich order means wiping down a food prep area, opening a packed gluten-free roll specially made in Minneapolis, Minn. and using special uncontaminated knives. The same single preparer completes the sandwich with various toppings, unlike regular sandwiches that are passed down the condiment aisle and finished by several preparers.

Gluten Free Subway Offerings
Source: Subway
Gluten Free Subway Offerings

Room For Growth

"If we do this right, we can be a dominant player in this game," says Mark Christiano,Subway'sworldwide baking specialist, who helped develop its gluten-free products.

Now available only at 750 locations in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas as part of a test program, the gluten-free experiment may be rolled out at another test at 100 Portland, Ore. restaurants in mid-July, he says.

Whole Foods' Tobin, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1996, says times have changed.

"There's certainly a lot more opportunity," says Christiano.

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