More than 7,000 people are diagnosed with the gluten allergy coeliac disease every year in this market, more than double the figure of a decade ago, according to Coeliac UK estimates.
This growing number of coeliacs was at least partly responsible for the 37.1 per cent growth of gluten-free products in the UK recorded by Mintel between 2000-2002.
There are currently about 250,000 diagnosed coeliac sufferers in the UK, with an estimated additional 500,000 undiagnosed sufferers. The disease is caused by intolerance to gluten- a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
But according to Coeliac UK, whose annual Coeliac Awareness Week ended yesterday, there is a downward trend in the prescription gluten-free market as it is restricted to diagnosed coeliacs, whereas the speciality and mainstream gluten-free food market is growing steadily every year, and is currently estimated at £155m (€225m).
This hints at the increasing number of consumers who do not have coeliac disease but wish to avoid wheat for other reasons. And new products coming onto the market for this category are managing to reach this wider consumer base through improved taste and profile.
According to the Sunstart Bakery, which claims to be the first to provide own-label gluten-free cookies to Sainsbury's and Tesco, its market is equally split between coeliac sufferers and people with mild wheat intolerance or people who simply choose to avoid wheat.
The firm claims that its gluten-free cookies taste the same and have the same texture as normal cookies.
"Unless you can make it the same, you don't make it," a spokesman for the bakery told BakeryAndSnacks.com. "Our cookies are for the whole family. They are 50 per cent cheaper than other gluten-free cookies on the market, and that is one of their greatest appeals."
The Nutricia company, one of the UK's largest manufacturers of gluten-free products, uses potato, rice and maize starch as well as soy flour in order to produce convincing gluten-free alternatives to normal baked products.
Glutafin Select fresh bread, launched last year, is currently its best seller, with a shelf life of five days and a 'no-difference' claim. "Consumers are delighted with the product. It comes as such a difference from other gluten-free breads which often have a cardboard-like texture," explained Ceri Chard, marketing manager at Nutricia.
Nicky Mendosa of Coeliac UK says that many more food makers could enter this growing market without having to spend much more on raw materials.
"There is so much scope for food manufacturers in the gluten-free product market. So many manufacturers use wheat starch to bulk out their products because it's a cheap ingredient. But they could use other ingredients instead, like corn starch. They're losing a huge proportion of the market by not producing gluten-free foods," she said.
Research is also underway to develop new ingredient alternatives for gluten. Early this year, the US government's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) developed a wholegrain rice bread mix, with initial results suggesting the ingredients could be a viable alternative to wheat, rye and barley grains.
In Europe, Ireland's Teagasc National Food Centre last year used a combination of potato starch and rice flour to improve the taste, texture and volume of gluten-free bread. The results have impressed manufacturers. According to the researchers, five or six Irish bakeries are currently testing the gluten-free bread with a view to launching it on the market.