Last summer, the FDA published a new regulation defining “gluten free” for voluntary food labeling. Regulators wanted to provide a uniform standard definition to help the approximately 3 million Americans who have celiac disease. To use the term “gluten free” on its label, a food must contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Manufacturers will have a year -- after the rule is published -- to bring their labels into compliance with the rule.

What does the market look like? According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, there are an estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease and another 18 million Americans who may suffer with symptoms related to gluten, but who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Furthermore -- regardless of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity -- more mainstream consumers are looking to gluten-free options. This is either because of a perceived degree of greater healthfulness in the products or perhaps an effort to manage weight. In fact, a survey conducted on behalf of General Mills’Chex brand, found nearly a quarter (24%) of Americans are looking for a gluten-free option when buying cereal for themselves or their families.

Indeed, according to recent research from Mintel, 65% of consumers who eat or used to eat gluten-free foods do so because they think they are healthier, and 27% eat them because they feel they aid in their weight- loss efforts. More than a third (36%) of Americans who eat or used to eat gluten-free foods say they do so for reasons other than sensitivity. Meanwhile, 7% say they eat them for inflammation, and 4% say they purchase them to combat depression. Sales in the gluten-free food and beverage market were estimated to reach $10.5 billion in 2013, Mintel estimates, and this is on top of the market’s 44% growth from 2011-13.

Elsewhere, a Packaged Facts report finds the market for gluten-free foods reached $4.2 billion in 2012 and experienced a compound annual growth rate of 28% from 2008-12.

What was the chief motivation for these consumers? Judging by Packaged Facts’ findings, it is the notion that gluten-free products are generally regarded as healthier, overall. Approximately 80% of consumers following a gluten-free diet are doing so without a diagnosis of celiac disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

This trend is not confined to the United States.  Researchers say Canada’s gluten-free market also has surged in recent years. According to Packaged Facts’ “Gluten-free Foods in Canada,” the gluten-free market north of the border surpassed $450 million in 2012, managing a staggering compound annual growth rate of 26.6% from 2008-12. Interestingly, compared to U.S. consumers, Packaged Facts finds that a larger percentage of gluten-free product users in Canada say they purchase gluten-free foods because someone in their household has celiac disease or a gluten or wheat allergy or intolerance.

How popular is gluten-free as a phenomenon? The Specialty Food Association surveyed 250 specialty food professionals to gauge the popularity of food-gift choices during the holiday season; Americans spend $86 billion on such foods as artisanal chocolate and cheese, olive oils and charcuterie. Hardly surprising were the top three product categories for the 2013 holiday season: chocolate (garnering 42% of consumer interest), baked goods (36%) and alcoholic beverages (25%); however, in fourth was gluten-free foods, dubbed the “hottest” specialty food category by 20% of respondents. Indeed, entire pages of holiday food catalogues have been allotted to gluten-free options. Clearly, gluten-free’s heyday has arrived.

The February issue of Prepared Foods will feature additional coverage, including a look at some of the recent product launches, of allergen-free products.