First there was low salt. Then came low fat, followed by low carb. Don?t forget vegetarian, vegan and dolphin-safe. Now there?s a new food niche—gluten-free and casein-free foods—and it has enormous growth potential.
Driving this are two seemingly unrelated disorders, autism and celiac disease. The incidence of both is on the rise. A 2002 study for the U.S. Department of Education shows that nationwide, between 1992 and 2000, the average number of cases of autism grew by 435 percent.
Similarly, a University of Colorado Health Sciences Center study, published in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, found that celiac disease—a genetic sensitivity to gluten that can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies—occurred at a rate of one child out of 100 in a study of 1,000 children observed from birth to age 7—double the rate previously suspected.
However, in both cases, radical dietary changes often seem to ameliorate and sometimes eradicate many symptoms. Preliminary research and anecdotal evidence show that eliminating certain proteins—specifically casein, found in milk, and gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye—can positively impact those suffering from either disorder. As awareness of such ailments—and the number of people impacted by them—has increased, manufacturers have responded, offering up gluten-free and casein-free products.
But those who must eliminate wheat and dairy from their diets aren?t the only ones seeking such products. The appeal extends to the low-carb crowd, vegans, the lactose-intolerant, people adhering to kosher laws, and those merely trying to avoid secondary chemical compounds commonly found in wheat and dairy.
Food proteins and autism
Although physicians and scientists remain unclear on why autism occurs, diet seems to affect language abilities and behavioral problems associated with the disease. Research and anecdotal evidence indicate that parents who remove gluten and casein from their autistic child?s diet can see significant improvements within a short time.
?It?s amazing. Parents—not every parent, but a large percentage—see great results after putting their kids on gluten- and casein-free diets,? says Mary Fleming, a Chicago-based registered dietitian who works with parents of autistic children as well as those suffering from celiac disease.
Lisa Lewis, parent to a 15-year-old son with autism and author of the book, Special Diets for Special Kids (Future Horizons, 1998), agrees. After seeing an allergy specialist, Lewis discovered that her son had a slight wheat allergy but nothing that might explain the aggressive behavior exhibited prior to having dairy and wheat removed from his diet.
?When he was young, I initially thought my son had allergies—he sounded like a kid with allergies. I did some reading and found out that 95 percent of food allergies are caused by the same foods. So I took him off dairy and wheat and he got a lot better,? Lewis says.
However, after doing more research, Lewis found scientists in Britain and Norway who suggested a link between gluten, not wheat, and autism. They found that a correlation seemed to exist between a body?s ability to metabolize these proteins and autism.
?Casein and gluten are proteins that sometimes cannot be broken down in the intestine, which leaves unbroken or undigested proteins floating around in the bloodstream,? explains Fleming. ?Those proteins actually mimic an opiate and, once they get into the brain, they can affect neurotransmitters, which is what can cause some behaviors like autism.?
A whole new set of food needs
While many imagine a bleak existence on a gluten-free, casein-free diet, Fleming begs to differ. ?People think you can?t eat anything on a gluten-free, casein-free diet, but that?s largely because society pushes so many junk foods. What I tell parents is that while it sounds overwhelming, many substitutions exist out there.?
However, says Lewis, a bigger variety of ready-made and convenience foods would be useful, especially for parents of autistic kids.
?These parents have so much to cope with—it?s not just a health issue; they have to deal with getting their child to speech therapy, occupational therapy, special education, as well as dealing with behavioral problems,? says Lewis.
How retailers can help
The casein-free food market is arguably more developed than the gluten-free market. Consumers are more aware of their options for avoiding dairy. They can buy rice or soy milk, and a variety of soy and other casein-free cheeses exist, as do casein-free snacks.
However, for both gluten-free and casein-free foods, better labeling, whether on the shelf, on food aisles or on the products themselves, would be another benefit.
?Labeling today is a huge issue. Natural flavors—what the heck are natural flavors?? Lewis asks. ?People who are at real risk of getting sick still have to call the manufacturer and even then, half the time, those people aren?t sure what?s in there.?
?A lot of products are wheat-, gluten- and dairy-free by nature, but they?re not labeled like that—rice cakes being one example—because years ago, there was not the demand for this type of labeling,? says Pamela Sorrells, president and founder of Pamela?s Products.
Cindy Kaplan, vice president of marketing for Enjoy Life Foods, a manufacturer of products free from all common allergens, says only a few retailers are creating food sections tailored for consumers with special dietary needs. But she is seeing more stores with shelf tags or coding systems that help customers identify gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, kosher and other specialty foods. Other stores, such as Trader Joe?s and Vitamin Cottage, have created lists and store guides specifically identifying products, by brand name, that meet special dietary needs, Kaplan says.
Sorrells has noticed that some grocery chains, such as Whole Foods and Krogers, have hired registered dietitians who can help customers with questions or concerns about suitable products and alternatives that meet dietary needs.
Some retailers also team with local experts to educate customers on gluten-free shopping and eating. Ukrop?s Super Markets, a Virginia-based independent grocery, recently hosted a seminar on how to read labels, and offered tips for cooking and dining out, along with providing samples of gluten-free foods. ?More and more, ordinary shoppers with special needs will be turning to their local grocery store for help in dealing with new dietary requirements,? says Sorrells. Conventional shoppers will become naturals shoppers if the natural stores are the places that have the products and information they need. ?When you?re diagnosed with celiac or you?re dealing with a family member with autism, you want to be able to go to the store you?re most comfortable with,? Sorrells says.
Rachel Hauser is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 2/p. 38, 42