Bakers Journal

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The Final Proof: August-September 2014


August 29, 2014
By Stephanie Ortenzi

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Perception, reality and a burgeoning “windfall” market: how the gluten-free sector is raking it in.

Perception, reality and a burgeoning “windfall” market: how the gluten-free sector is raking it in.

The gluten-free market is feasting on a whopping, five-year growth of 156 per cent. Canadian retail sales of gluten-free products have gone from $179 million in 2008 to $459 million in 2012, according to a report presented at the Future of Gluten-Free Marketing and Certification conference in Toronto this June.

The report attributes the growth to an increased awareness of celiac disease and allergies, the increased availability of gluten-free products in mainstream markets, and the general perception that gluten-free foods are healthier choices.

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Looking at why people are buying gluten-free, 14 per cent of consumers surveyed said that a household member has celiac disease and 27 per cent have a household allergy and dietary sensitivity. Who else is buying gluten-free?

Here is the gluten-free sector’s windfall market: 34 per cent say that they perceive gluten-free products to be healthier; 18 per cent perceive that gluten-free products are of higher quality; 24 per cent said “weight management is important” (more on that later); 11 per cent are using gluten-free foods as part of treatment for neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD (more on this later, too); and 31 per cent said, “I buy products and they just happen to be gluten-free,” which sounds vaguely like a brag, as if products are plucked from the shelves and only at the check out does it turn out that they’re gluten-free.

The Americans are making similar findings. A report released in May by U.S. market research firm NPD Group found that only 11 per cent of American households follow a gluten-free diet, while one in four people believes that a gluten-free diet is good for everyone. Drilling down, the report continues: “Only 25 percent of those living in a gluten-free home say celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is the main reason.” By this account, 75 per cent of the gluten-free market does not have celiac disease or related sensitivities.

To the delicious benefit of the gluten-free industry, perception has become a profitable reality. But this powerful windfall begs a key question. Will these perceptions last, especially with this market’s two main peeves about gluten-free products as outlined in the NPD report: flavour and price?

An important issue raised at the Toronto conference is that gluten-free is really a food-safety issue. Health perceptions aside, celiacs need surety in their food. Producers who can’t deliver on safety won’t have a market. Certification keeps the celiac consumer safe from debilitating symptoms and has the important side benefit of being a product’s strongest marketing boon. Large retailers are increasingly looking to stock more gluten-free products, and certification is an important differentiator. And it doesn’t stop there. The spread of certification requirements now extends to a producer’s suppliers, and rightly so. Certification isn’t perception. It’s science.

Looking at “weight management” from a gluten-free point of view, consider two things. One, I hear the ghost of the once mighty Wheat Belly, the powerful book that, some say, contributed to an international crisis in plummeting bread prices a few years back. It has since been effectively debunked. Two, weight management is ruled by the law of thermodynamics: to lose weight, we need to consume less than we expend, a hard-to-swallow nugget of fact.

In terms of a special diet for neurological conditions, the gluten-free-casein-free diet for autism is controversial. Little research has been done, but according to CeliacCentral.org, it’s part of the first line of treatment and two-thirds of individuals “show at least some improvement” from the so-called GFCF diet. A little can, significantly, be a lot.

A lot of perception is an entirely different thing. I worry that the gluten-free windfall market hangs a little too precariously on perception – in particular, that the gluten-free diet is healthier than a diet with gluten. It’s simply not true. 

A notable proponent of this idea is Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. In a peer-reviewed report on WebMD.com, he says that any time you eliminate whole categories of food, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies, that a gluten-free diet can lack essential vitamins and minerals, that gluten-free products tend to be low in a wide range of important nutrients, including B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fibre.

Word is going to get out, and it will spread like a Googled factoid in the hands of a showboating dinner party guest. We have to get in front of the facts, add those nutrients if they haven’t been already, and say so in the marketing.

On a good-news note, science-wise, clinical trials are currently under way for drugs that may help ease celiac disease, and a vaccine for celiac disease is also under investigation. The beauty of science is that it’s never done, just like the business of hanging onto our market.


Stephanie Ortenzi (www.pistachiowriting.com) is a food-marketing writer.


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