Few recent food and beverage market trends are as vexing as gluten-free. Out of the need by a small portion of the U.S. population has emerged an undefined market that may have tremendous potential or will fade when the next nutrition fad unfolds. The challenge for food industry executives is to separate the sensationalism surrounding this subject from reality.

That some people have a need for gluten-free products is undeniable. About 3 million people in the United States live with celiac disease, a condition that prevents the body from digesting gluten. As the cause and effect of celiac disease have been researched, another group of consumers, those who suffer from gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, has been identified. The University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research estimates the size of this population to be 18 million. Combined these two groups have provided the platform for small and mid-size companies to develop products that meet their specific eating requirements.

The challenge food industry marketing executives face is determining the size of the population that suffers neither from celiac disease nor gluten intolerance, but is generating demand for these products based on their negative perceptions of including gluten in their diets. The size of this population remains undefined.
Further confusing the situation is the number of charlatans that have emerged to take advantage of the trend. Denouncing gluten as part of any diet has become a cottage industry supported by diet plans, cookbooks and celebrity endorsements.

Mintel International estimates that in 2011 sales of gluten-free products totaled $6 billion. The market research firm forecasts the sales total may climb to $8 billion by 2013.

This potential growth for sales of gluten-free products has translated into increased product development activity. Innova Market Insights said that in 2011 gluten-free offerings accounted for nearly 10% of global snack launches and represented 20% of snack launches in the United States.

The news surrounding the gluten-free trend combined with market insights have garnered the attention of some of the industry’s largest manufacturers.

Once the purview of small, niche manufacturers, the market for gluten-free products has drawn the efforts of companies such as General Mills and Frito-Lay, a business of PepsiCo, Inc. Their efforts encompass the consumer populations that require gluten-free products as well as those consumers that may have hopped on the gluten-free bandwagon.

Despite the momentum and potential for growth, warning signs have emerged that portend less interest by those who do not suffer from any form of gluten sensitivity. A study published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found no evidence to suggest following a gluten-free diet has any significant benefits for the general population. Noting that gluten-free dieting has gained considerable popularity, the authors say additional research is needed to “clarify the health effects of gluten and potential consequences of avoiding gluten-containing grains.”

The authors of the study go on to note there are several potential health benefits associated with gluten that may be lost to those who shun the nutrient due to misperceptions. Benefits cited included improved gut health that may protect the body from certain cancers, inflammatory conditions and cardiovascular disease.

The reality may be that the market for gluten-free products is at its peak. There will always be a market for the products because of the need. But anyone expecting the category to continue to grow beyond those consumers who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity has not learned the lessons of past diet trends.