The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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Gluten-Free: Just a Fad?

Gluten-Free: Just a Fad?

Dietitian Dialogues

May 28, 2012

By Leah McGrath 

It seems that you can't escape mention of the gluten-free diet lately. Stars like Miley Cyrus talk about having “gluten allergy,” and athletes proclaim that going "gluten-free" has improved their performance. Meanwhile, there are many people for whom the gluten-free diet is a medical and health necessity, like those with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. Also, many parents of children with autism who put them on a gluten- (and casein – a milk protein) free diet report improvements.  

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Many items are naturally gluten-free like fruits, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, rice, and beans. Gluten-free customers tend to shop for gluten-free versions of breads and baked goods, cereals, pasta and crackers – items that usually contain gluten.

In the world of the supermarket, we know that it's a number game, i.e. the more customers who want a product or a type of ingredient, the more likely we can find manufacturers who are making, producing, supplying and selling a product, the better the price, and the more likely it is to be found in our stores.

There certainly may be a "fad factor" in regards to requests for gluten-free products reminiscent of the "low carb" or Atkins craze. While this population may tire of gluten-free, the “good” news for the manufacturer and supermarket who invests in producing or stocking gluten-free items is that there are also people who have no choice but to buy gluten-free products.

Let’s just focus on one type of potential gluten-free consumer, the person with celiac disease. It’s estimated that one in 133 Americans (about 3 million) have been diagnosed with celiac disease, and the University of Chicago Center for Celiac Disease estimates that some 97% of those with celiac disease have not been diagnosed. As awareness increases and the rates of diagnosis improve, expect to see more gluten-free consumers from this category alone. For those with celiac disease, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet. In addition to those with celiac disease, it’s estimated that even a larger market exists with some 18 million Americans who have some level of sensitivity to gluten, termed non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

According to the Portland Business Journal, “Sales of gluten-free food and beverages grew 30 percent a year between 2006 and 2010 and will hit $5 billion by 2015.”

It is not merely enough to stock shelves with gluten-free packaged products. The educated gluten-free consumer wants items that:

- Are enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals like their gluten containing counterparts
- Are made using whole grains like quinoa, teff, sorghum, buckwheat, or millet
- Have naturally occurring or added fiber
- Have a good taste
- Are reasonably priced
So what’s the bottom line for buyers? Going gluten-free may be a fad for some, but the core of customers for whom a gluten-free diet is the only or best option to improve their health and medical condition is expected to increase in coming years. Gluten-free isn’t going anywhere – it’s here to stay.
Resources: Gluten Intolerance Group of North America Reuters article, September 29, 2011, “A Gluten-Free for all Drives Product Sales”  and Portland Business Journal, April 2, 2012, “Gluten-free foods storm Portland”, Wendy Culverwell.

Leah McGrath, RD, LDN has been the Corporate Dietitian for Ingles Markets (IMKTA), headquartered in Black Mountain NC, since 2000. Prior to working for Ingles Leah was a WIC and Nutrition Director in the Low Country Health District, Beaufort, SC and also served as a dietitian in the U.S. Army. Leah's current position is multi-faceted and includes hosting a weekly radio program, "The Ingles Information Aisle" on, regular appearances on TV, writing for several regional publications, public speaking, store tours and a robust presence in social media via the Ingles Markets Facebook page and her Ingles twitter handle @InglesDietitian. 

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at