Celiac disease is one of the most common chronic health disorders in Western countries. It is also one of the most underdiagnosed. Up until 10 years ago, medical schools thought celiac disease was relatively rare and only affected about one in 2,500 people. It was also thought to be a disease that primarily affected children and young people. Recent studies and advances in diagnosis show that at least 3 million Americans, or about one in 133 people, have celiac disease, but only one in 4,700 is ever diagnosed. Furthermore, celiac disease occurs more often in populations that are genetically predisposed, and incidence rises to one in 22 among those closely related to someone with celiac disease.
Natural and organic gluten-free product sales have reached just short of $1 billion —$998 million—across natural supermarkets and conventional food, drug and mass stores. Growth for these products is on the rise, increasing to 16.5 percent in the 52 weeks ending Aug. 9, up from 15.3 percent in 2007. The conventional food, drug and mass stores claimed $625.5 million, or 63 percent of these sales, for 16.9 percent growth in the recent 52-week period. In the natural supermarkets channel, the remaining sales totaled $372.5 million, representing a 15.9 percent sales increase from a year ago. As the conventional channel increases its share of sales, growth in natural supermarkets has slowed by 2.5 points over the past three years.
Judging by the current double-digit growth rates for 19 of the 25 tracked categories, tremendous opportunity remains for products serving people with this underdiagnosed disease. The largest of the categories are soups, frozen entrees, desserts, baking mixes, chips and snacks, and energy bars. Growth rates for these categories remain extremely positive. In conventional food, drug and mass stores, energy bars, hot cereals, crackers, baked goods, cookies and snack bars are the fastest-growing categories and represent more than $24 million in growth over the past 52 weeks, just under 30 percent of the total dollar growth for the entire segment. In natural supermarkets, baking mixes, frozen entrees, soups and energy bars provided much of the growth dollars and represent the four top-selling categories in the channel. In terms of sales rank, desserts and chips and snacks are underdeveloped in natural supermarkets while posting similar growth rates across the two channels.
Current sales and growth of gluten-free products that are also natural and organic indicate drivers of a mutually beneficial nature. The organic segment of gluten-free foods posted even stronger growth rates, up 19 percent over year-ago figures. Dollar share of these sales is roughly split between the two channels, although conventional food, drug and mass stores are showing signs of increasing over time. As those with celiac disease become more aware of the effects of what they put into their systems, the further benefits of healthier foods also become more compelling and drive sales. Additionally, the international Codex Alimentarius Commission recently released a standard for the definition of gluten-free, processing requirements and labeling. This standard will provide increased consumer confidence in the products and further drive sales.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 38