It's only taken a few short years for gluten-free to break loose from its niche position and grow into a billion-dollar-plus star of supermarket health and wellness. What started in bread/cake/cookie mixes today extends into frozen entrees, pasta and even beer. It's become entirely possible to lead a gluten-free existence.
“The number of calls and emails I've received about gluten has gone from one or two a month to one or two a day,” said Leah McGrath, corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets, Asheville, N.C. “I got an email from a customer just this morning saying, ‘Thank you for what you've done. It used to be that shopping at a supermarket was like trying to pick my way through a minefield.’”
According to Packaged Facts, supermarkets have become one of the top-selling channels for gluten-free products, capturing (along with natural food stores) 30% of the market. Sales are expected to grow 20%, from $1.6 billion last year to $2.6 billion by 2012.
The demand for products has never been greater — but where is the demand coming from? Experts say there is a secondary population of gluten-free consumers just coming into focus now, and they greatly outnumber those suffering from celiac disease, a condition that requires a gluten-free diet.
“The bulk of the people following the diet don't have celiac disease but have some form of gluten sensitivity,” observed Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group, Auburn, Wash. “It includes the autistic community and people with other medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis or skin diseases, where, when they take gluten out of their diet, they tend to feel better.”
Gluten's impact on these conditions remains unknown, but it hasn't stopped people from eliminating wheat and other grains from their diets. To satisfy this extensive demand, supermarkets have been adding products to shelves and emphasizing outreach in their service roles. Donna Dolan, a corporate dietitian at West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, says many of the chain's 125 store dietitians host local meetings of celiac support groups.
“This is really a growing, large population, and they're a tight-knit group,” she said. “In some communities, we've actually started the groups. It gives us an opportunity to sample new items on our shelves and stock what these shoppers need.”
It's not uncommon for many supermarkets to publish a list of gluten-free products on their website. Hy-Vee and Ingles do this for both brand names and their private labels. The latter has emerged as a surprise beneficiary of the gluten-free movement.
“That's one of the big changes I've seen among gluten-free products — the selection among private label that we now have,” said Kupper. “These are big names, too: Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, Safeway, Kroger. It's really a mainstream thing.”