Gluten-free label proposal should boost sector

The 'gluten-free' food niche could get an additional boost with the FDA's proposal to allow a gluten-free statement on food labels. The comment period is open until 27 April.

The proposal is hoped to stem the current lack of universal understanding among either manufacturers or consumers about what gluten free means. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains such as rye; barley; and wheat, and its derivatives like durum, spelt or kamut. People with a sensitivity to gluten are diagnosed with coeliac disease, an inflammation of the small intestine that affects an estimated three million Americans.

"We're excited about them setting up guidelines," said Stephanie Torlakson, director of marketing and community relations for gluten-free manufacturer Pamela's Products, based in California. "Gluten-free product launches were up 86 per cent in 2006. A lot of factors are driving that growth, including education. The regulations will take the guesswork out of it for those people looking for gluten-free products."

Among the salient issues the FDA is seeking comment on is the proper threshold level of gluten. A recent published study suggests 20 parts per million is appropriate. A lower threshold could limit availability of gluten-free foods but could benefit coeliac sufferers, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance. Also at issue is whether to include oats in the list of prohibited grains.

"In the absence of federal rules, food companies are using a variety of standards in manufacturing gluten-free products," said Andrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance. "Manufacturers know that uniformity and consistency will benefit them as well as consumers."

The $700 million US gluten-free market is poised to grow to $1.7 billion by 2010
Ingredient alternatives are being investigated at a healthy clip. In 2005, the US Agricultural Research Service announced the development of a whole-grain rice bread mix. In Ireland, the National Food Centre introduced a combination of potato starch and rice flour. Milo, an animal-feed crop also known as sorghum, is also being investigated. Corn Products International has a modified tapioca starch called Expandex that emulates the texture, structure and appearance of wheat.

Market researcher Packaged Facts said that, with the help of the guidelines that are expected to be finalised by 2008, the $700 million US gluten-free market is poised to grow to $1.7 billion by 2010.

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