The market for gluten-free products has grown from essentially unmeasurable to a multi-billion-dollar industry over the last 20 years. Estimates of the value of the global gluten-free market range from a projected $4.7 to $7.9 billion in 2020, up from $1.7 billion in 2011, according to Financial Times.
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Gluten is a collective name for proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale as well as derivatives of these grains, such as barley malt and wheat germ. These proteins are present in a wide variety of ingredients commonly used in food production, and play a vital role in a food product’s volume, texture, and appearance. Gluten can easily hide in foods such as malted milkshakes, herbal teas, artificial flavors, candy, bouillon cubes, and lunch meats.
Some individuals have a severe intolerance to consuming gluten called celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune disorder. When they eat gluten, damage to the small intestine occurs and they can’t properly absorb nutrients into the body—resulting in nutritional deficiencies. Other symptoms might include chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, anemia, and reproductive health issues, says Alice Bast, CEO, Beyond Celiac, Ambler, Pa., a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of celiac disease. If undiagnosed or untreated, celiac disease can lead to further complications such as the onset of other autoimmune diseases and some cancers. Go.BeyondCeliac.org says approximately 1 percent of Americans have this condition; diagnosis rates continue to rise as awareness of the disease grows.
“Individuals with celiac disease can only tolerate small trace amounts of gluten, so any presence must be low enough to be undetectable by scientific methods,” points out Genelle Chetcuti, senior director of marketing, RW Garcia, San Jose, Calif., which manufactures gluten-free snacks.
A 100 percent gluten-free diet is the only existing treatment for celiac disease, says Sue Newell, education manager, Canadian Celiac Association, Mississauga, Ontario. Drug treatments undergoing testing by the U.S. FDA are designed to supplement a gluten-free diet, not replace it.
Up to 6 percent of Americans, or 18 million people, exhibit similar symptoms to those with celiac disease when consuming gluten, according to Go.BeyondCeliac.org.
This is called a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Having to eat gluten-free in order to stay healthy is quite burdensome. Gluten-free consumers have to become expert label readers and be on the lookout for gluten hidden in food and beverage products. “While wheat is one of the top eight allergens that are required by law to be called out on food labels, rye and barley ingredients are not, putting the responsibility on consumers to recognize sources of gluten that may be hiding in the ingredients list,” Bast says. It’s also difficult for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity to dine out, due to potential cross contact in commercial kitchens.
Perceived Health Benefits
Some consumers who haven’t been diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance are attracted to a gluten-free diet. They may perceive it as healthier or as a way to lose weight. “But this is not necessarily true,” Bast says. “While many naturally gluten-free foods are very nutrient dense (e.g., legumes, green leafy vegetables, dairy, and lean proteins), many packaged gluten-free products are not. Manufacturers should focus on product development not only for tasty gluten-free foods, but also for ones that are healthy.”
A nutritional comparison shows that gluten-free products are generally higher in calories, fat, and sugar and are lower in fiber, iron, and B vitamins than their regular counterparts, Newell notes. Gluten-free flour and baked goods are generally not fortified to the level of their wheat-flour equivalents.
But it is not surprising that someone might feel better when they first go gluten-free, however. “They will generally decrease the amount of highly processed foods and the number of restaurant meals they consume,” Newell says. “But this benefit is not necessarily related to gluten.”