When Lakewood, Colo.-based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage first began identifying gluten-free products in its stores in the 1990s, the grocery chain realized it wasn’t just acknowledging the latest health fad.
"This is a really big topic," says Karen Falbo, Natural Grocers’ nutrition education program manager. "It’s not just a food intolerance or part of the low-fat movement. Celiac disease is a genetic disorder and, really, diet is the only controllable factor. It is essential that these people adhere to a gluten-free diet."
That’s why Natural Grocers works with the Celiac Sprue Association, the largest celiac support organization in the country, to educate staff and customers on gluten. All Natural Grocers stores post a regularly updated list of the CSA-certified gluten-free products they carry—these products contain less than five parts per million of gluten, considerably less than the European Union’s 20 PPM gluten-free standard. And instead of being consolidated in one small section, gluten-free items, from food to personal care to supplements, are located throughout the stores and highlighted by shelf tags.
Natural Grocers also recognizes that it’s easy for supposed gluten-free foods to be contaminated. That’s why the stores have allergy labels on all bulk products noting which are packaged in a plant that also processes nuts, wheat (gluten) and soy. In addition, stores host quarterly "gluten-free living" seminars in which nutrition experts teach customers how best to read labels to identify risky ingredients.
Now that the word’s gotten out, more and more customers with gluten-free lifestyles are flocking to Natural Grocers’ brick-and-mortar or online stores. "The response has been exceptional," Falbo says. "It is a big deal changing from consuming a lot of wheat products to a gluten-free diet. Our customers really appreciate the support."