Sales of gluten-free products continue to register strong growth. Per SPINSscan Natural and SPINSScan Conventional, the overall market for gluten-free foods (across channels) hit $1.101 billion in 2008 and grew again, to $1.234 billion, in 2009. While non-gluten-free food sales rose a paltry 0.2% in 2009, according to SPINS, gluten-free managed a 12.1% growth in dollar sales, with unit sales increasing 9% in both channels.

Gluten-free sales in natural foodstores, per SPINS, have grown from $229 million in 2007. In 2008, they reached $280 million (a 22% rise) and jumped to $320 million in 2009 (a 14% gain) in the natural store segment.

However, the growth has been nearly as strong in mainstream food, drug and mass merchandiser (FDM) outlets. Gluten-free sales in FDM in 2007 stood at $697 million, grew 18% to $821 million in 2008 and managed another year of double-digit dollar sales growth (11%) amid the worst economic crisis in decades to reach $914 million in 2009.

Gluten-free options are now available in 39 food categories, explained SPINS’ Beata Klenk during a presentation at this year's Natural Product Expo West, with most sales in the natural channel coming in chips, pretzels and snacks; soup; and baking mixes. In FDM, the top two gluten-free categories remain the same, though the third spot goes to refrigerated non-dairy beverages. Introductions of gluten-free products have slowed, however, in both channels, noted Klenk. Between 2007 and 2008, 641 new gluten-free products graced natural foodstore shelves, with 351 making their way to FDM aisles. The next year saw introductions slow precipitously: to 339 in natural and 116 in FDM. However, food and beverage introductions were down across the board in 2009, and judging by the number of new gluten-free products available at Expo West this year, the number of gluten-free products appear set to rebound.

King Arthur Flour is adding a line of gluten-free mixes, and Bob’s Red Mill continues to diversify its line with a gluten-free oat flour and quick-cooking oats.Food for Life launched gluten-free English muffins, and Ener-G Foods debuted Sunflower Cookies (similar to peanut butter cookies but made from sunflower seeds), while Flamous Brands introduced Falafel Chips (crackers made from the ingredients traditionally found in falafel, such as beans). Even prepared seafood entrées are adding to the gluten-free mix, with Blue Horizon’s announcement of gluten-free crab cakes and gluten-free fish sticks.

French Meadow is launching gluten-free breads and pizzas, while Rudi’s and Udi’s likewise are adding gluten-free breads. Rudi’s Organic Bakery, in fact, announced the debut of Rudi’s Gluten Free Bakery, a line featuring a sandwich bread, a multigrain bread and a cinnamon raisin variety set to hit store shelves in July. As Doug Radi, vice president of marketing at Rudi’s explained, “Our master bakers have worked with experts in the gluten-free industry to make sure customers with celiac disease and gluten intolerance can once again take pleasure in eating a product that has the same taste, texture and appearance of regular sandwich bread.”

Admittedly, such a notion has likely always been the gold standard (or at least a dream) of gluten-free manufacturers; recent years have seen ingenuity and innovative formulations advance gluten-free products to new levels, levels that might seem ordinary to non-gluten-free consumers. However, as Scott Mandell, founder of Enjoy Life, explained, manufacturers must make sure gluten-free consumers do not feel different or like they are missing something. “Gluten-free consumers don’t want to feel ‘different’...This is a loyal and knowledgeable market, and there is opportunity out there for manufacturers, if they evaluate the marketplace and search for the areas ripe for expansion.”

Currently, the FDA has no definition of “gluten-free,” but one is expected soon. (Granted, the gluten-free segment has been bracing for this definition for years, and rumors that one would emerge as long ago as summer of 2008 were just that: rumors.) The current thinking is that the FDA will soon define “gluten-free” at 20 parts per million, the European standard, explained dietitian Ronni Alicea RD, MBA, during the seminar “From Gluten to Casein to Nuts: Helping Consumers Avoid Common Food Allergens” at Expo West.

“The biggest allergen-free category now is gluten-free,” opined Neil E. Levin, nutrition education manager at NOW Foods; however, other allergens are on manufacturers’ radars. "Soy foods on the whole are trending down," noted Klenk. "Soy-containing natural and organic categories amount to $1.6 billion in sales (2009 data) and are trending down...due to consumer shift (avoidance)...and lost of space to newer non-dairy, no-soy options like coconut and hemp." Indeed, SPINS finds soy foods dollar sales in 2009 dipped 4% in natural stores and 3% in FDM, with unit sales down 10% and 7%, respectively.

Turtle Mountain announced a pair of soy-free launches capitalizing on the rising popularity of coconut. So Delicious Coconut Milk Kefir contains 10 live active cultures, as well as lauric and capric acid, two substances that support immune function, according to the company. In addition, So Delicious Coconut Milk Yogurt has no soy and a coconut base, with such varieties as vanilla, blueberry and passionate mango. 

Hemp likewise is making its way into allergen-free frozen dessert formulations. Tempt Ice Cream, for instance, is a vegan take on "ice cream" with no dairy or soy, in such flavors as mint chip, coffee biscotti, chocolate fudge and coconut lime. This non-dairy frozen dessert declares on-pack, "Hemp contains no known allergens," while also noting an absence of dairy, soy, tree nuts, gluten, cholesterol and trans fat.

What could be next on the allergen-free front? Experts speaking during the “From Gluten to Casein to Nuts” seminar discussed the opportunities for gluten-free manufacturers in the whole-foods front, with Alicea noting that corn allergy diagnoses are becoming more common, simply because the grain is “so pervasive in our culture...Corn is in everything--from the foods we eat, to the packaging it’s in.”

Other Web Resources
* Prepared Foods' Webinar: Gluten Free Products: Market Trends and Regulations
* Gluten-free with Cassava Flour
* Egg White Foams in Sourdough Applications
* Gluten Polymer Size & Baking
* Gluten-free and Other Formulation Challenges
* Rice Flour in Place of Wheat Flour
* Ingredient Technologies to Tackle Textures

From the May 10, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition