Sales of gluten-free foods have surged 68 percent in the last two years, according to a new study – even though other studies have shown that only 1 percent of the U.S. population actually has celiac disease. Still, more and more Americans are convinced that they are sensitive to gluten, which accounts for much of the upsurge in sales.
“I don't think it's mass hysteria at all,” says Los Angeles-based gastroenterologist Lourdes Bahamonde, pointing to several factors that might account for increased gluten sensitivity. For one, increased ingestion of highly processed foods, including those containing high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils, may damage the sensitive balance of bacteria in the gut (the microbiome), she says.
“A more detailed breakdown of grain mixtures shows that a rise in pizza, snack foods and ready-to-eat cereals has gone up 60-200 percent,” Bahamonde says. “My issue with these snack/ready-to-eat foods comes with the partially hydrogenated oils and other nonsense in there. Synthetic/processed foods are on the rise, and just as there is stronger evidence that sugar substitutes feed the wrong gut bacteria, new evidence may likely support the notion that the damaged microbiome is making people sensitive to gluten.”
Many non-celiac patients with irritable bowel syndrome benefit from a gluten-free diet, Bahamonde adds. “Because physicians have little to offer IBS patients, except suggest a change in diet, consumers have flocked the aisles looking for these products," she says. "Interestingly, the Paleo diet also recommends grain avoidance; the vegan/granola crunchy masses concerned about the environment also seek alternatives to what modernized agriculture offers. People with diabetes (ever increasing in numbers) seek low glycemic products, which generally knocks wheat off the shelves. I think there is a variety of factors driving the market for GF products today, celiac aside.”
According to the new research by the London-based market research firm Mintel, the U.S. gluten-free food market is estimated to reach sales of $8.8 billion in 2014 and will only continue to grow, especially as new FDA regulations “make it easier for consumers to purchase gluten-free products and trust the manufacturers who make them,” says Amanda Topper, food analyst at Mintel. “Despite strong growth over the last few years, there is still innovation opportunity, especially in food segments that typically contain gluten.”
All gluten-free food segments increased in the last year, though the snacks segment increased the most. Gluten-free snacks increased 163 percent over the period of 2012 to 2014, reaching sales of $2.8 billion (however, that increase was mainly due to a 456 percent leap in potato chip sales).
The meats/meat alternatives segment was the second-largest gluten-free food category in terms of sales, reaching $1.6 billion in 2014, a 14 percent increase over 2012-14 – and, of course, leaving aside the fact that most meat by definition is grain-free, although that doesn’t stop meat manufacturers from slapping “gluten-free” labels on everything from bacon to chicken wings.
The bread products and cereals segment saw gains of 43 percent during that same time period, and is set to reach $1.3 billion in sales this year. But overall bread and cereal represented only 1 percent of the gluten-free market.
According to the Mintel study, 41 percent of U.S. adults believe that gluten-free foods are beneficial for everyone, not only those with a gluten allergy, intolerance or sensitivity. However, while 33 percent of survey respondents in 2013 agreed that “gluten-free diets are a fad,” that number increased to 44 percent of Americans in 2014. But that hasn’t slowed the popularity of gluten-free foods—22 percent of Americans currently follow a gluten-free diet, compared to 15 percent in 2013. (Although of course, there are more than a few in the remaining 78 percent who would defy anyone to try to pry their beloved gluten from their cold, dead hands.)
However, when we look at studies that attempt to quantify the number of people actually suffering from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), the numbers of those with the disorder appear to be quite low. According to a 2013 study in the journal Cellular and Molecular Immunology, “The prevalence of NCGS has yet to be defined because no reliable epidemiological study has been published to date.”
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However, a 2009–2010 study found a prevalence of 0.63%, according to the article. Another study cited by the article, performed at the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland, found that about 6 percent of participants had NCGS. Extrapolating from these results, the researchers estimate that approximately 2 million to 16 million people in the U.S. are affected by NCGS. If we take a middle number and estimate 8 million people, that’s just 2.5 percent of the current U.S. population of 317 million who actually suffers from non-celiac gluten-sensitivity. Add in the celiacs and you have a total of 3.5 percent who could benefit from avoiding gluten. Yet, as stated above, 22 percent of the U.S. population is currently following a gluten-free diet.
One might conclude that at least some of those people could be what marketing analysts technically call “chumps.”