Gluten-Free: Plateauing Trend or a Growing Health Necessity?

Although it may seem like the gluten-free market is plateauing, new health studies by researchers in Europe and Australia just might have manufacturers expanding their offerings instead of contracting them.

According to a recent blogpost published by Euromonitor International, a London-based market research firm, as much as half of the world’s population could potentially develop celiac disease because of environmental triggers. While that figure would appear to be on the high end, a study by the National Institute of Health in 2009 showed that prevalence of celiac disease has quadrupled in the United States since the 1950s to 1 in 133 Americans.

The study, which compared blood serum taken from healthy adults in the mid-twentieth century and those from today, showing the increased incidence did not necessarily come from improved diagnosis. Similarly, a study conducted last year by Nottingham University showed diagnosis of celiac disease in the U.K. is up four-fold since the 1990s.

Celiac Disease

Additionally, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimated that 83 percent of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, particularly among those in lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Moreover, a 2012 Mayo Clinic survey concluded that while 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, an additional 18 million people — approximately 6 percent of the population — are believed to be gluten-sensitive.

And in a 2014 New York Times article, Rebecca Thomspon, a marketing manager at General Mills, said that data on levels of celiac and gluten-sensitivity in the population underestimates how many people eat gluten-free products.  She explained that in a household where possibly one of the four people eating has a gluten-sensitivity or celiac disease, it is much easier to prepare one gluten-free meal for everybody.

Yet, while the prevalence of celiac disease may be on the rise, there are, however, some indications that the market for gluten-free products is slowing. In a recent report, market research firm Packaged Facts found that while gluten-free products have grown by 34 percent annually in the five years leading up to 2014, the segment is expected to expand by 19.2 percent through 2019.

According to the author of the Euromonitor post, Simone Baroke, encouraging the future growth of the gluten-free market seems to be dependent on two main factors: 1) the education of consumers on the disease and getting proper diagnosis; and 2) expanding offerings in terms of variety and price points, so that all segments of the market may be captured.

Education and Diagnosis

According to gastrointestinal experts, celiac disease can develop at any age and can lead to detrimental long-term health issues such as heart disease, thyroid condition and osteoporosis, so it’s certainly in the interest of consumers to be diagnosed.

Diagnosis of celiac disease by symptom alone is quite difficult; the most thorough diagnosis is achieved through a gut biopsy.

Yet, because many consumers are unaware that they have celiac disease, Baroke suggests that food and beverage manufacturers step up their efforts to educate consumers about gluten-sensitivity.

Expanding Gluten-Free Offerings

Gluten-free options are readily available in most grocery stores, but many are relegated to specialty or natural food sections, limited in preference choices, and are on the pricier side of the grocery spectrum. Moreover, three-quarters of consumers surveyed in a 2014 study by Coeliac UK, the largest celiac disease charity in the world, said they had to visit more than one supermarket to complete their gluten-free shopping.

Baroke recommends that manufacturers not only increase their offerings, she notes that extending gluten-free options will enable consumers, especially children, to feel less segregated when having to shop for and consume a “specialty diet” food item.  In addition, Baroke recommends manufacturers try to offer lower price points for gluten-free products to enable those with smaller budgets (keeping in mind that the majority of under-diagnosed are those with lower incomes) to purchase what they need.

As might be expected, data supplied by Euromonitor International shows that gluten-free bakery items, which include breakfast cereals, accounted for two thirds of global gluten-free food sales in 2014. The segment has thrived and achieved a value growth rate of 17 percent in 2014, indicating continued opportunity for new brands and products to emerge.


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