New food and drink products claiming "gluten-free" status are set to double in 2012 over what they were just five years ago.
According to data from Mintel's Global New Products Database, 1,992 products launched in the United States last year made a 'gluten-free' label claim. In 2007, only 686 new food and drinks made such a claim. Thus far in 2012 (as of mid-June), 888 new foods and beverages were gluten-free.
Much of the market growth is not just people with celiac disease; it's the growing ranks of people who believe that they are gluten intolerant. "The number of people who have been actually tested and proven to be gluten intolerant is a fraction of the population who claims to be gluten intolerant," explained Kantha Shelke, principal and cereal chemist at Corvus Blue.
But on the upside, this has created a growing awareness in the value of different, unique grains, and this is an area that has not yet met economy of scale in mainstream foods. “The days of mass replacement—where you try to make a product just using one homogenized grain—those days are rapidly going away, thankfully. The enlightened consumer is figuring out that each type of grain has its own benefits, attributes and value propositions," Shelke said.
No quick-fix replacements
Removing gluten from products presents challenges to formulators. One approach some formulators have taken to achieve acceptable organoleptic properties in a gluten-free product is to boost fat and sugar content—not an ideal solution from a nutritional perspective.
Removing gluten from baked products however, reduces the volume, creates uneven cell structure, and can easily result in a dry, crumbly and grainy texture. It's the same kind of challenges that formulators striving to replace high fructose corn syrup ran into. Consumers suddenly wanted lower-calorie drinks and foods, but finding a one-size-fits all replacement for HFCS wasn't doable. In place of HFCS, a product maker might now use stevia, but then might also use some sugar or other sweeteners to add bulking properties, as well as other formulation and taste advantages.
So far, big food companies have not yet tackled the problem of how to replace the ho-hum wheat grains currently being used in mainstream baked goods. “So far, the changes are coming in small quantities and niche operations," Shelke said. "Small companies are able to do these things really well: they are agile, they can gently walk the consumer through the changes. There's not a great mass-market opportunity here."
New types of products
Consumers of tomorrow will be looking for artisanal grains, and nonhybridized wheat varieties coming out of regional localities like Italy or India, says Francine Schoenwetter, a supply side expert with New Hope Natural Media, who has worked in all angles of the food industry.
“There seems to be some demand in natural and gourmet food products for alternative wheat flour sources. Some wheat varieties don't have the same gluten content and they are more highly tolerated by people unless they really have bona fide celiac disease. The huge demand in gluten-free right now is by people who do not have absolute allergies, but people who feel better eating less gluten products. More artisinal, regional varieties of wheat and other grains could be a great point of entry,” Schoenwetter said.
“There are companies out there that manufacture artisanal brands of breads, crackers or other snacks. They are always looking for a new twist in market share," she said.