In the summer of 2013, the U.S. FDA published a new regulation defining “gluten free” for voluntary food labeling. The intent was 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 (even if the verbiage is “no gluten,” “free of gluten” or “without gluten”), a food must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Manufacturers will have a year after the rule is published to bring their labels into compliance.

“Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to treating celiac disease, which can be very disruptive to everyday life,” explained FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD. “The FDA’s new ‘gluten-free’ definition will help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health.”

“We encourage the food industry to come into compliance with the new definition as soon as possible and help us make it as easy as possible for people with celiac disease to identify foods that meet the federal definition of ‘gluten-free,’” said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

The FDA did specifically cite the “3 million Americans who have celiac disease” in its announcement, but the sheer size and rapid growth of the gluten-free market in recent years would belie that number as a proper estimate of the gluten-free consumer. A study in the August 2012 American Journal of Gastroenterology found 1.6 million American consumers following a gluten-free diet, and this referred only to gluten-free consumers not diagnosed with celiac disease.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Americans who have been suffering symptoms that may be related to gluten may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition which estimates indicate could be plaguing 18 million Americans; that is six times the estimated 3 million Americans who have celiac disease. Furthermore, regardless of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consumers increasingly are looking to gluten-free options, whether due to a perceived degree of greater healthfulness in the products or, perhaps, an effort to manage weight.

A survey conducted on behalf of General Mills’ Chex cereals 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 formerly ate gluten-free foods do so because they think they are healthier, and 27% eat them because they feel they aid in 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.

“It’s really interesting to see that consumers think gluten-free foods are healthier and can help them lose weight, because there’s been no research affirming these beliefs,” says Amanda Topper, food analyst at Mintel. “The view that these foods and beverages are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts is a major driver for the market, as interest expands across both gluten-sensitive and health-conscious consumers.”

Sales in the gluten-free food and beverage market are estimated to reach $10.5 billion in 2013, Mintel predicts. From 2011-2013, the market experienced growth of 44%.

“When looking at the top 10 gluten-free food product claims in Mintel’s Global New Products Database, after gluten-free and low-/no-/reduced-allergen, there also are product claims associated with being natural and free of additives or preservatives,” says Topper. “The positioning of gluten-free products as having multiple health benefits, such as low fat or no animal ingredients, may be leading to consumer perceptions that gluten-free products are healthier than products that contain gluten.”

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 2008-2012. 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.

Some 80% of consumers following a gluten-free diet are doing so without a diagnosis of celiac disease, according to the Mayo Clinic, and the interest is not confined to the U.S., as Canada’s gluten-free market has surged in recent years, as well. 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 2008-2012. Interestingly, per Packaged Facts, compared to U.S. consumers, 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/intolerance.

By no means is allergen awareness confined to gluten, however. According to “Dairy Alternative (Beverage) Market -- Global Trends & Forecast to 2018,” a report from MarketsandMarkets, the dairy alternative beverage market will hit $14 billion by 2018, with a main driver being the health benefits for consumers suffering from lactose intolerance or milk allergies. As such, the sector is expected to enjoy a compound annual growth rate of 15% over the next five years.


Eating Veggies, Not Gluten

In the U.S., Snikiddy, a line of all-natural snacks made from simple food ingredients, is introducing Soy Ginger Eat Your Vegetables as an exclusive to Kroger stores nationwide. Like all Eat Your Vegetables options, the Soy Ginger crisps are made with eight vegetables (including kale, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, navy beans, carrots and shitake mushrooms) and provide a full serving of vegetables per ounce, as well as a good source of vitamin A, C, E, B1, B6 and antioxidants. In addition to their 3g of fiber and 3g of protein per serving from a proprietary blend of beans and brown rice, the Snikiddy snacks are certified gluten- and -wheat-free, made with non-GMO ingredients, and are completely free of peanuts or tree nuts.

Kale and sweet potatoes likewise serve as key components of a soup from Blount Fine Foods, whose Turkey, Sausage and Kale Soup also boasts white beans, brown rice and zesty herbs. The soup is free of gluten, addressing a growing dietary request, noted Bob Sewall, Blount’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, in announcing the product in Prepared Foods.

Readers may also recall a winner of this year’s “Spirit of Innovation Awards” was notable for its allergen awareness.

Classic Cooking created a vegetarian muffin that was gluten-free and also tailored to fit the needs of gluten-conscious consumers looking to manage their weight, as each muffin was formulated to have 120 calories and 4.5g or less of fat. Flavors in the line have grown to include Zucchini Chocolate, Carrot Berry, Zucchini Banana Chocolate Chip, Veggie Blueberry Oat and Golden Corn.

“The biggest challenge for R&D,” recalled Kathryn David, research chef with Classic Cooking LLC, “was to create a muffin that was appealing to the mainstream consumer, while still remaining gluten-free, like the rest of the Garden Lites brand.”

Such an innovative notion also led Potillas LLC to develop what it terms is the next generation of tortilla. Its Potapas are made from potatoes and serve as an alternative to traditional, flour-, corn- and gluten-free rice-flour tortillas. In addition to the potatoes, the Potapas are formulated with garbanzo bean flour for protein, as well as cassava flour and chicory root inulin for fiber, providing each 1oz tortilla with 1g of fiber and 1g of protein per 60-calorie, 1g-fat serving. Similar to the Snikiddy line, the availability is somewhat limited to the Southwest and all 162 Sprouts Farmers Markets.

The Southeast is the home of a gluten-free alternative to protein energy beverages. Iconic from Be Well Nutrition is available in two flavors -- Pure Vanilla Bean and Chocolate Truffle -- and also lacks lactose. Each 11oz beverage promises 130 calories, 3g of sugar and 20g of protein.

Smaller companies have long been on the gluten-free bandwagon, but recent years have seen a keen interest in the concept from major manufacturers, as well, with General Mills being one of the more active companies. Its Chex cereal brand recently added its seventh gluten-free variety, Vanilla Chex made with natural vanilla flavors and promising 10g of whole grains per serving, to augment the line’s other varieties, namely Rice Chex, Corn Chex, Honey Nut Chex, Chocolate Chex, Cinnamon Chex and Apple Cinnamon Chex.

The company also has made a significant impression in gluten-free doughs, under its iconic Pillsbury brand. Available in refrigerated sections, Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Gluten Free Thin Crust Pizza Dough, and Gluten Free Pie and Pastry Dough are available in tubs for easy portioning. The 15.8oz tub of Pie and Pastry Dough makes two 9-in pie crusts that weigh in at around 250 calories per serving; the 13oz Thin Crust Pizza Dough makes one 10-in pizza with approximately 170 calories per serving, while each 14.3oz tub of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough makes approximately 16, 2-in, 110-calorie cookies.

“We’re excited to welcome the gluten-free community back to the fresh dough aisle. Pillsbury Gluten Free Dough provides so many possibilities and makes enjoying meals together easier,” says Rebecca Thompson, marketing manager for Pillsbury fresh dough innovation. “As a company, we are committed to the gluten-free community and to providing great-tasting, easy-to-prepare products from brands they trust.”

General Mills is not alone, however, in bigger companies getting into gluten free; Campbell Soup’s Goldfish brand not only saw a new texture in its Goldfish Puffs extension, but also a gluten-free designation, a first for the brand. Available in Buffalo Wing, Cheddar Bacon and Mega Cheese options, the snacks are baked, contain no artificial preservatives and offer 10g whole grains per serving.

For a line of energy bars made from organic sunflower seeds, Zego not only omitted gluten; it also eliminated nuts, soy and dairy. The two flavors -- Chocolate with a cacao nib crunch and Sunflower with a hint of caramel -- are limited to the San Francisco Bay Area and to Amazon customers. The company notes two years went into the selection of ingredients; refining the bars’ recipes; balancing the nutrition profile; and testing. Protein-rich foods have become a definite consumer demand, and Zego developers noted the particular challenge in finding protein-rich snacks for parents of children with food sensitivities. Most other energy bars are not a widely acceptable solution, as nearly all contain nuts and/or some combination of gluten, soy or dairy. Each Zego bar provides 10g of protein and 2-4g of fiber.


Kids’ Stuff

At the risk of seeming dismissive, if children are the future, then the cost of food allergies is having quite an impact on the future -- and the present. Research led by Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician at Chicago’s Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital and professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, found children’s allergies to peanuts, dairy and other foods cost the U.S. nearly $25 billion a year.

Some 8% of American children have at least one food allergy. Gupta says doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, trips to the emergency room and other direct medical expenses account for $4.3 billion, with parents’ lost productivity adding $773 million. Outweighing both of those combined were the costs of special allergen-free foods, allergy-sensitive schools and special arrangements for child care; that tab was $5.5 billion. Gupta estimated parents’ lost career opportunities at $14 billion -- per year. In total, the expenses amounted to $24.8 billion a year -- $4,184 per child. Discounting medical expenses covered by health insurance, the cost left to the families was $20.5 billion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 4-6% of U.S. children suffer from food allergies, but even with that relatively small percentage (some estimates put the total of children with food allergies at closer to 8%), the impact on the foodservice side of the industry has been pronounced. A 2007 study by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN -- now known as Food Allergy Research & Education -- FARE) found half of the 63 food allergy-related fatalities between 1996-2006 involved restaurants.

Chided for a lack of awareness, the restaurant industry has taken steps to educate its staff, and in 2009, Massachusetts passed a bill requiring restaurants to display a food-allergy awareness notification in staff areas; label menus to remind diners to notify servers of any food allergies; and train “food protection managers” on food allergy issues. FARE has since joined with the National Restaurant Association to create a comprehensive, interactive national training program to help restaurant personnel become more food allergy-aware.

The move may be just in time, as the gluten-free trend is quickly making its way even into quick-service restaurants. Dunkin’ Donuts planned to add gluten-free, cinnamon-sugar doughnuts and blueberry muffins to its menus in 2013, following Domino’s Pizza’s gluten-free crusts, but ahead of long-rumored Starbucks’ plans to add gluten-free pastries.

 The effort may be a boon to those who have to eat gluten-free products, but it may well put a dent into the widespread regard of gluten-free as part of a weight management diet. Dunkin’ Donuts’ wheat-free doughnut has 320 calories vs. the 260 calories in its regular, glazed doughnut. Still, it is an entry for the chain into a gluten-free market that, according to Nielsen, accounted for $19.7 billion in annual sales.