Gluten-free is emerging as a dominant trend, one expected to grow tremendously in coming years and already embraced by General Mills; the NPEW show also featured launches geared toward indulgence.

Members of the natural products industry gathered in Anaheim, Calif., March 13-16, for the annual Natural Products Expo West (NPEW). The 28th edition of the expo was the largest in its history, organizers said, and demonstrated just how much this side of the food and beverage industry has changed of late. More than 3,000 exhibitors displayed their wares for a 52,000-strong group of attendees, all part of a show that introduces more new products every year than any other trade event in the world, NPEW sponsors note.

Those sponsors also note a change in the crowd’s character, as natural foods have emerged into large and mid-size grocery stores. Those stores serve as “part of the pleasure of food,” explained keynote speaker Michael Pollan, as he explored “Defending Food, Searching for the Perfect Meal and Other Culinary Dilemmas,” opining, “It is not just what is in our food, but how we enjoy our food.” Pollan, winner of the James Beard Award for best food writing forThe Omnivore’s Dilemma, defined the “very perplexed American eater. This eater, I’ve come to know, is more complex than we might think. America, as a whole, has a national eating disorder, and its consumers are on a giant health food pendulum.”

Food, he believes, should be regarded as more than simply fuel, more than a “delivery system of nutrients. These are not something that can be seen and must, therefore, be explained. If foods are the sums of their nutrient parts, Americans risk losing the ability to eat without the help of nutritionists, labels, et al.” Eating is not merely about health; it is a vehicle for pleasure, spirituality, identity, community: “It is cultural and not just biological...‘Food as only health’ is a narrow view.”

The Health You Say

With all due respect to Pollan, for some consumers, health has to be first in mind when it comes to their food selections, and one group in particular served as a focus for many manufacturers’ products on display at this year’s NPEW. If not the largest trend then certainly the fastest-growing one, gluten-free was extremely popular--with booths touting the lack of gluten, as well as seminars explaining the reasons behind and the methods for producing gluten-free foods. During “Meet the Gluten-free Guru,” attendees learned of the history and potential future for gluten-free items. Danna Korn, chief motivational officer with Sonicboom and author ofWheat-free, Worry-free, noted that gluten-free is the fastest-growing nutritional trend in America. The reason for this growth is the increasing diagnoses (whether by physicians or consumers themselves) of celiac disease. (See the sidebar “Free at Last.”) This autoimmune disease is genetic and has symptoms “all over the board,” Korn has found. “They can include fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, migraines, infertility, mouth sores, weight gain/loss, depression, anxiety and others, but the key thing to remember is that celiacs have a zero tolerance of gluten: a strict adherence to a gluten-free diet will totally remove these symptoms, but it is the only way to avoid them.”

In Korn’s mind, going gluten-free is entirely about finding alternatives, as “the ingredient can be hidden in flavors, soy sauce, etc., and wheat-free does not mean gluten-free: spelt is wheat,” she noted. However, “Now, there are many options: breads, pastas--virtually anything has a gluten-free alternative. These can be purchased online, in natural food stores and in the specialty sections of a growing number of mainstream retailers. The price point can be high, and availability can be a problem; however, those issues are being addressed.”

Indeed, if this year’s NPEW is any indication, gluten-free options are well on their way, from companies large and small. Interestingly, shortly after gluten-free’s strong showing at NPEW, General Mills released a reformulated version of its Rice Chex, likewise sans gluten. An announcement of the new product, appearing in the April 28th edition ofPrepared Foods’ eFlashelectronic newsletter, explained how General Mills rid the product of gluten: The company “replaced barley malt syrup with molasses and...has taken the requisite steps to prevent cross-contamination during production and tested the new formula based on proposed FDA standards.” The newly reformulated Rice Chex calls out its gluten-free nature on the package, topping its list of nutritional benefits. “Individuals following the gluten-free lifestyle are looking for great-tasting, mainstream products that meet their special dietary needs,” explained Elaine Monarch, founder/executive director, Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF). “The gluten-free category is growing significantly, and together, CDF and General Mills can generate more awareness of celiac disease and help to improve the quality of life for these individuals.”

General Mills’ launch may have overshadowed some of the launches coming out of NPEW, but the trend was readily apparent during the expo. The Hain Celestial Group Inc. launched Gluten Free Café, what it described as “the first and only line of gluten-free frozen foods.” Kettle Cuisine might take exception to that description, as it launched gluten-free soups for the freezer, a line including such flavors as Angus Beef, Clam Chowder, Chicken Soup, Chicken Chili and Grilled Chicken, all noted as natural. Gluten Free Café items are also all-natural and fortified with two goals: first, with vitamins and minerals commonly deficient in gluten-free diets and, second, with a prebiotic to aid digestion. The four-item line includes Pasta Primavera, Asian Bowl, Fettuccini Alfredo and Lemon Basil Chicken, with calories ranging from 260-400 and total fat contents between 8-15g.

Press materials for the line point to the fact that the U.S. gluten-free foods/beverage market is expected to increase to $1.7 billion by 2010, per Packaged Facts. For comparison’s sake, 2007’s gluten-free sales in the U.S. stood at $800 million, suggesting the market will more than double in less than three years; the market was valued at $210 million in 2001 and has grown at an annual growth rate of 27% since. This year, FDA is expected to issue a definition of “gluten-free” (word from manufacturers at NPEW suggests the FDA’s definition will debut around August of this year), and after that time, large manufacturers are expected to join the gluten-free bandwagon. The general consensus from NPEW exhibitors is that major manufacturers have been reluctant to invest in gluten-free R&D until fixed regulations for gluten-free are in place. Once that definition is in place, the floodgates are expected to open.

With a forthcoming wave of gluten-free items likely, many smaller manufacturers are cognizant of the need to establish a rapport with gluten-free consumers now. Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, for instance, merged gluten-free with another prominent trend to launch Gluten Free Pizza Crust Mix, with more than 50% whole grains. The product provides 4g of dietary fiber, 3g of protein and 28g of whole grains. Bob Moore, the company’s founder, noted its entire line of gluten-free products is manufactured in its dedicated, gluten-free facility. “Lab testing is performed during the production of each ensure gluten-free status.”

Delving in-depth into each and every gluten-free item on display could occupy the better part of this issue, so for brevity’s sake, manufacturers with prominent gluten-free products on display included but were by no means limited to:

  • French Meadow Bakery's new informational labels on packaging to let customers know whether items are gluten-free.
  • Twin Hens’ gluten-free beef pot pies made with organic cornmeal.
  • Pamela’s Products’ scones, muffins and waffles.
  • Amy’s Kitchen’s expansion of its gluten-free line to include such items as Cream of Rice Hot Cereal and Non-Dairy Cheeze Rice Crust Pizza.
  • PatsyPie’s artisan-baked, all-natural and gluten-free biscotti, mini-brownies, cookies and mini-muffins.
  • Enjoy Life’s allergen- and gluten-free snack products, including Mountain Mambo Not Nuts, Beach Bash Not Nuts and Sunbutter Crunch.
  • Andrew & Everett’s gluten-free, RBGH-BST hormone-free, shredded cheeses in such varieties as mild cheddar, sharp cheddar, mozzarella, Colby Jack and Mexican mix.

  • The Natural

    All of this is not to suggest that gluten-free was the only trend on display this year. As befits a show billed “Natural Products Expo,” natural claims were easy to find, as was the usual number of the unusual: aromatherapy plush animals filled with organic buckwheat and lavender, as well as natural pet wipes and a mist infused with vibrational flower essences designed to “clear cellphone and computer radiation.”

    Organic items were also easy to find, be it in cosmetics, pet food, meats or beer. However, natural foods held sway, with a great many touting their perceived health benefits. The Hot Products Hall featured such natural ingredients as açai,yerba mate, mangosteen and goji berry. “Açai is probably the most established,” finds Lara Christenson, director of natural products research at SPINS, the market research firm for the natural products industry. “Mangosteen is an up-and-comer. Pomegranate and some of the traditional fruits, blueberries and cranberries are still very strong.”

    POM Wonderful, a long-standing success riding on the back of consumer interest in antioxidants, showcased its all-natural tea, in regular and light versions. The light has half the calories: 35 per serving. However, more is better in the minds of many consumers, so they are looking for something with an even greater amount of antioxidants, hence the emergence of açai.

    Açai was key to a number of beverages featured at NPEW. Bombilla & Gourd incorporated it into a flavor in its new Superfruit line: açai blueberry was joined by pomegranate lemonade, yumberry lime and orange mango. However, the company is more inclined to note the benefits ofmate, which offers “slightly less caffeine than a comparable cup of coffee.” In addition, it contains theobromine, the stimulant in dark chocolate, and theophyline, the stimulant found in tea leaves.

    Superfruit was also the adjective of choice for Guru Energy’s new organic energy beverage. While Bombilla & Gourd’s Superfruit line was not expected to launch until May, Fuze announced an açai product that will not hit shelves until September. Fuze Energy beverages were available for sampling at NPEW and feature all-natural ingredients, including natural caffeine. The line will include guava, orange mango and açai pomegranate. Açai was hard to find alone, as manufacturers joined the ingredient with a number of flavors: Hansen’s Natural Iced Tea is launching a Sugar-free Açai Black Tea and a Sugar-free Pomegranate Green Tea. Hansen’s Natural also noted a switch from high-fructose corn syrup to cane sugar in its soda.

    NextFoods, a fairly new company from the founder of White Wave, displayed its probiotic, multivitamin juices. GoodBelly, as the line is called, is a fruit drink with a probiotic “clinically proven to improve digestive function and to promote immunity,” while also being “the only dairy-free, soy-free and wheat-free product of its kind,” noted founder Steve Demos.

    Annie’s Homegrown, meanwhile, sampled a number of kid-oriented items, including Bunny Graham Friends, a snack mix featuring chocolate, honey and chocolate chip graham cookies. In addition, the company debuted some items for the older set: Organic Creamy Tuna Spirals, which could be considered vegetarian, as tuna has to be added and is not included in the package. In addition, the company added three flavors to its organic dressings line: creamy Asiago cheese, pomegranate vinaigrette and lite cucumber yogurt.

    Feeling Green

    As also might be expected from a natural expo, exhibitors had a definite “green” sensibility. For example, Guayaki Sustainable Rainforest Products, a manufacturer ofyerba matebeverages, introduced “carbon-subtracting products,” one-pound packages of San Mateo Loose Yerba Mate and Traditional Loose Yerba Mate that remove more carbon than they emit throughout the supply chain (from harvest through production). A company spokesperson noted, “The carbon-subtracting process is achieved primarily due to the vast carbon sequestration that occurs in the vibrant South American rainforest, where Guayaki’s organicyerba mateis sustainably harvested under the canopy of towering hardwood trees.” Conscious Brands assessed the production: growing in the rainforest absorbs 875g; 220g are emitted for processing, 11g for packaging and 71g for transportation, resulting in a carbon subtraction of 573g.

    For its part, Nature’s Path Foods even incorporated sustainability into its NPEW booth: countertops were made of recycled cardboard, and flooring consisted of post-consumer vinyl and plastic. Meanwhile, sample baskets were made with a type of woven hyacinth, a plant said to double its population every two weeks. All of which were just an indicator of the wave of sustainability efforts expected to hit the industry in coming

    Website Resources Search “gluten-free” for the latest news and articles on the trend in Prepared Foods magazine Celiac disease and kids Natural Marketing Institute A consultant for lowering companies' environmental footprints Natural Products Expo West<

    SIDEBAR: Free at Last

    The emergence of gluten-free options was one of the major stories coming out of the 2008 Natural Products Expo West (NPEW), as every aisle seemed to have at least one gluten-free option. Attendees were not the only ones noticing, either; exhibitors spotted the trend early, and by the end of the show, many had added “GLUTEN-FREE!!!” signs to their booth, even for products that had never featured gluten in the first place. Regardless, similar episodes were noticed among several exhibitors--a clear sign that gluten-free is coming of age.

    However, the trend is not entirely new. It has been steadily building an audience and garnering attention for years, andPrepared Foodshas been delving into the subject for a while: this year’sNew Products Annualin March referenced it in several reviews, and the article “Gluten-free: Opportunities and Challenges” appeared in the August 2007 issue, to name only a couple of the more-recent occasions. So, why has gluten-free emerged as such a notable trend?

    Leading the list of reasons would have to be an increased awareness (and diagnosis) of celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The latest figures indicate 3 million americans have a gluten intolerance; however, estimates indicate that 97% of celiac sufferers are undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. For that matter, a Packaged Facts report estimates the number of known celiac sufferers “will increase worldwide by a factor of 10 during the next few years.”

    Danna Korn, author ofWheat-Free, Worry-Free, notes celiac disease is the most common genetic disease in mankind, afflicting 1% of the population. “However,” she has found, “10-20% of first relatives of celiac sufferers have celiac disease themselves.” In addition, a growing number of Americans regard eating gluten as unhealthy, a logic that crosses all demographic boundaries. While celiac sufferers clearly make the majority of gluten-free purchases, this second group of “health and wellness seekers” is growing and may ultimately be a larger consumer base than the number of those diagnosed with celiac disease. However, will this be something of a fad for non-celiac sufferers, a la the low-carb craze? Manufacturers omitting gluten would be advised to target and focus upon those suffering from celiac disease, as this is the group that will remain loyal for one simple reason: they have no choice; a gluten-free diet is their only hope for good health.

    Regardless, for the 3 million celiac sufferers in this country, the prepared food options are fairly limited, or at least, they had been. As this year’s NPEW demonstrated, those options are slowly increasing, as manufacturers realize the purchasing power of these individuals, as well as the impact of their influence upon those around them.