Gluten-free market bigger than once thought—and growing

Still think going gluten-free is a fad? New research shows that 83 percent of people with celiac disease don’t know it. Opportunity for gluten-free natural businesses abounds.

One of the hottest trends in natural products proves yet again that it's not a trend. Gluten-free products and the gluten-free lifestyle are more prevalent than ever before and promises to grow. That's because a large proportion of people remain undiagnosed for celiac.

New research published last week in the American Journal of Gastroenterology indicates that about 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease (CD), the severe autoimmune reaction to gluten—but 1.4 million, or 83 percent, don't know it.

Using information gathered from blood tests and surveys of 7,798 "nationally representative" people ages 6 and up, researchers found 35 people with CD; that extrapolates to 1 in 141 Americans. Remarkably, 29 of those were unaware of their condition.

Surveys were conducted from 2009 to 2010 by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers also note that their estimate, while reliable, "should be considered [minimal]" because it doesn't count those people in the larger study group who didn't undergo CD testing.

Diagnosing gluten intolerance

"This study provides a barometer for how well we are diagnosing the disease," says Rachel Begun, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of The Gluten Free RD blog.

"While we've made great strides in raising awareness and getting more people tested and diagnosed, [these numbers show] we still have a ways to go. The more we educate both physicians and the public, the earlier people will get tested and diagnosed, and the quicker they can start treatment with a gluten-free diet. We know the longer people go undiagnosed and untreated, the greater their risk for long-term health complications."

The same study also showed that 1.6 million Americans follow a gluten-free diet even without a confirmed CD diagnosis. Some likely have celiac but don't know it; others may have self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity.

Your market opportunity

"However, it seems many more Americans are on a gluten-free diet for other reasons," Begun says. Because eliminating dietary gluten before celiac testing can produce inaccurate results, "it's important that people get tested for celiac prior to starting a gluten-free diet so they understand the long-term health implications of a diagnosis."

Mintel's Global New Products Database, released in February, found that product launches with a gluten-free claim nearly tripled in 2011 to roughly 1,700 products as compared to 2007. And according to Nutrition Business Journal estimates, U.S. consumer sales of gluten-free foods grew 15 percent to $4.2 billion in 2011.

As celiac testing becomes more common, so will the demand for gluten-free products in grocery stores (enter clearly marked gluten-free labels) and restaurants. Is your natural business ready to provide?

Additional reporting by Caren Baginski

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