Gluten-free surges into mainstream despite challenges

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Globally, few shoppers are interested in gluten=free products because of gluten intolerance, however, the trend has become mainstream. Pic: ©iStock/Highwaystarz-Photography
Globally, few shoppers are interested in gluten=free products because of gluten intolerance, however, the trend has become mainstream. Pic: ©iStock/Highwaystarz-Photography

Related tags Td style= Gluten-free diet Wheat

Gluten-free has moved from trend to mainstream. BakeryandSnacks reviews the demand and its demise in certain areas, as well the confusion and the rising number of contentious health risks.

According to research, globally, only 1-2% of people can’t process gluten.

That’s not to say we should lessen the seriousness of celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, but when did gluten-free become trendy among people who don’t suffer from these ailments?

The notion that removing wheat and gluten-containing grains from our diets is better for overall health is driving the demand in the US, says Mintel’s Global Food and Drink analyst Chris Brockman.

Only 17% specifically follow it for the management of gastrointestinal symptoms.

Follow the celebs

Victoria Beckham

Many celebrities following the diet is spurring the trend, too.

Victoria Beckham publicly announced she follows a gluten-free diet because it helps her keep her weight down, while Gwyneth Paltrow wrote in her book It’s All Good that “every single nutritionist, doctor and health-conscious person I have ever come across concurs that gluten is tough on the system and many of us are at best intolerant of it and at worst allergic to it”.

Last year, according to Mintel, the number of new gluten-free products launched globally edged over 14%, compared to 8% in 2012, with the largest number – 19% – being in the snacks category.

The demise of gluten-free bread

However, said Brockman, there are signs gluten-free breads are reaching their limit in terms of penetration limits in most developed markets.

“This is certainly the case in NPD terms, with the proportion of launches that are gluten-free falling in North America, Australia, New Zealand and most European countries in recent years,”​ he told BakeryandSnacks.

“Some consumers are becoming distrustful of gluten-free foods,”​ said Brockman, noting that 65% of US consumers are concerned about the ingredients in gluten-free foods.

Clean up your act

sourdough EmiliaU
Pic: ©iStock/EmiliaU

The rise of sourdough

Brockman told BakeryandSnacks sourdough is a major growth driver because it is seen as a more natural form of bread and is reportedly easier to digest.

“It is claimed the fermentation breaks down the gluten, resulting in a product that is more easily digested and healthier than bread made with added yeast, which does not break down gluten,” ​he said.

“Growth in the use of the sourdough descriptor in new bread and bread product launches globally has been dramatic in the last few years with major players such as Grupo Bimbo in Spain launching it successfully as a mainstream product, in Bimbo’s case under The Rustik Bakery brand.”

Sweden – Europe’s ‘sourdough capital,’ – accounted for 17% of global sourdough launches in 2016. The US (13%) and Germany (11%) were also key markets.

“Improving the health profile and cleaning up labels is now a major focus in order to negate the criticism that gluten-free products contain long lists of ingredients and are less nutritionally dense.

“Alternative, more natural and traditional approaches to tackling the issues people have with refined wheat- and gluten-containing bakery products are also likely to increasingly appeal.”

In tradition we trust

Brockman added that greater grain diversity is also likely to shape the bread category.

“As Mintel’s 2017 Food & Drink Trend In Tradition We Trust states, more products in the future will specifically link with the past, including going way back in time.

“Gluten-free ancient grains and seeds such as quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, chia and sorghum, as well as more traditional grains that are reportedly easier to digest than wheat, such as spelt, are growing in use in bread and bread product launches,”​ he said.

“Completely grain-free products based on almond, coconut or pulses are also increasingly appearing across the bakery market.

“Such naturally lower gluten or gluten-free products and less refined baked goods are likely to be of interest to a wider audience than formulated gluten-free products,” ​said Brockman.

What really is gluten-free?

By 2020, ‘gluten-free’ is projected by MarketsandMarkets to be worth $7.59bn globally.

However, there is confusion over what “gluten-free” actually means.

  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million (ppm) for foods labeled “gluten-free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” or “without gluten”, and does allow oats.
  • Canada does not allow oats and gluten must not exceed 20ppm.
  • The Codex Alimentarius – used in many markets and mirrored in EU regulations – uses 20ppm and prohibits oats and has added a “very low gluten” certification for products below 100ppm but above 20ppm.

So how does a manufacturer of gluten-free products confidently label a product and distribute it in their market of choice without getting into hot water?

Without a clear global definition of “gluten-free,” this could be a quagmire.

Added to that, manufacturers need to ensure their staff and production processes are fully supported by Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs.

Certification company SGS is purportedly the only independent certification body that offers a choice of globally-recognized gluten-free certification schemes.

Cat among the pigeons

Although most of us could do with cutting back on processed carbs, several studies have shown that going strictly gluten-free is not synonymous with “healthy.”

  • The European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition​ compared over 650 products to similar items containing gluten and found the gluten-free versions had a significantly higher fat content and were often less nutritious.
  • Similar results were also found in independent tests conducted by the Netherlands consumer association, Consumentenbond.
  • According to American research published in the British Medical Journal, cutting out whole grains from the diet may lead to increased risk of heart disease.
  • A study published in Epidemiology​ found the unintended consequence of a gluten-free diet meant that arsenic levels were almost twice as high, while mercury levels were 70% higher. The authors speculated this could be because rice, which soaks up metals from its environment, is often used as a wheat substitute, but this is just a theory.

However, this isn’t to say that following a gluten-free diet isn’t beneficial. Hundreds of clinical studies suggest following a gluten-free diet aids a person with celiac disease.

To go gluten-free or not?

Pic: ©iStock/demaerre

There are advantages and disadvantages of both gluten and gluten-free.

A study conducted in May 2017 by HealthFocus International said 2,000 US global consumers report they are interested in gluten-free products because of gluten intolerance. Shopper interest is mainly driven by health and weight management.

The survey also noted two out of 10 shoppers are generally interested in learning more about gluten-free products even though they don’t know what they are, while there are still a high percentage of consumers that show disinterest.

What best describes your attitude about gluten-free products?

RegionBetter for meWeight managementI'm gluten intolerantI'm interestedI'm not interested
Asia Pacific28%24%7%25%16%

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1 comment

Consulting Dietitian

Posted by Shelley Case,

Health Canada has a marketing authorization that allows specially processed oats to be labelled "gluten free". These oats must be less than 20 ppm. There are several companies that source oats from farmers who follow a purity protocol and are processed in a dedicated gluten-free mill. Other companies use mechanical/ optical sorters to remove gluten-containing grains from contaminated oats. However, the process varies among millers and it is difficult to completely remove all gluten-containing grains. Regardless of which method is used it is essential to do extensive gluten testing.
Shelley Case, RD,

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