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More Room on Grocery Store Shelves for Gluten-Free Products

posted on December 14, 2012


Millions of Americans experience an adverse reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. The affliction, known as Celiac disease, affects about one percent of the U.S. population.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the disorder is not a food allergy - it is an autoimmune disease. While food allergies, including wheat allergy, are conditions that people may grow out of, that is not the case with Celiac Disease.

While medication typically is not required, adopting a gluten-free diet requires some lifestyle changes. Sufferers must read labels carefully and learn to identify ingredients that may contain hidden gluten. But that task is getting easier.

Increasingly, the dietary regimen is being embraced by those who are NOT afflicted with Celiac Disease. And that’s fueling dramatic growth in the market for gluten-free foods. Paul Yeager explains.

Navigating the aisles of a grocery store is an easy task for most shoppers. Meat, dairy, produce – no problem. But, for an increasing number of consumers finding foods that fit their gluten-free diet is difficult.

Alex Lemke knows the struggle. She’s been gluten-free for several years after being diagnosed with Celiac disease, a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine.

Alex Lemke, Gluten-Free Shopper: “The first challenge is realizing that gluten is in so many products that you never would have never, ever guessed, so that’s frustrating. Things that just would surprise you where it turns up.“

Gluten may seem easy to escape, but it’s found in more products than just sliced bread and cereal. It turns up in unexpected items – from salad dressings to taco seasoning… and can even be found the candy aisle.

Emily Galeazzi knows this all too well. The 17-year-old was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease and is the only one of her siblings restricted to a gluten-free diet.

Emily Galaezzi, Gluten-Free Shopper: “It’s really hard because you have to make 2 separate meals, and you have to have 2 separate bags of chips, separate snacks and it’s hard to have breakfast in the morning because if you want toast you have a separate toaster. It’s really hard.

Gluten – a protein found in processed foods made from wheat, barley and rye – has always caused problems for those who suffer from Celiac disease.  But in recent years many consumers who do NOT have Celiac disease have also embraced gluten-free diets. 

A study by Packaged Facts, a leading consumer research firm, found that nearly half of those who buy gluten-free products do so because they perceive the products to be “generally healthier.” Other consumers use gluten-free foods as a method of weight management or because they think the products are of higher quality.

Alex Lemke, Gluten-Free Shopper.  “I have a lot of friends that choose to just follow a wheat- free lifestyle because they just feel better. They feel like they look better, it helps keep their weight down.

With greater demand for gluten-free products, the industry is booming, growing 28 percent over the past four years and by the end of 2012, the U.S. market for gluten-free foods is expected to exceed $4 billion annually.

Niche gluten-free brands are growing dramatically and major food manufacturers are catching on, offering classic brands in new, gluten-free options.

Grocery chains like Midwest giant Hy-Vee are making the gluten-free shopper’s trip to the grocery store a little easier. HyVee has seen a 22% company-wide increase in gluten-free product sales in the past two years, according to Director of Health & Wellness Julie McMillin.

Julie McMillin RD, LD – Director - Health and Wellness, Hy-Vee: “So we’ve expanded these sections by a ton. Generally we were anywhere from a few hundred gluten free items and now we’re thousands of gluten free items that we offer our gluten free customers.

She says that Hy-Vee listens to its customers to determine what their needs and wants are – even if that means redesigning the store.

Julie McMillin RD, LD – Director - Health and Wellness, Hy-Vee: “We’ve also gone as far as separating it out for the consumer so it makes the shopping experience a little easier. They’re able to just go to one section in the store and make it a one stop shop for them.

Each Hy-Vee store has different gluten-free offerings, depending on the demand at varying locations, but labeling is always important.

Julie McMillin RD, LD – Director - Health and Wellness, Hy-Vee: “Over the past couple of years, Hy-Vee has really focused on making it easier for that gluten-free shopper. So we’ve added shelf-toppers that really highlight the products themselves and then we pulled out the products from the mainstream line and put them into sections where we call out that specific section. So some things you wouldn’t normally think about a gluten-free shopper missing would be likes cakes and cookies and brownies so we put them all into one section where the gluten free shopper can easily find that chocolate cake they’ve been missing out on.

After being told what they can NOT eat , Lemke and Galaezzi say it’s refreshing to see so many items they CAN eat. 

Alex Lemke, Gluten-Free Shopper.  “They’ve actually allowed me to live a better, more enjoyable life. It’s really easy now to come in and pick up anything I need to make just a normal, traditional dish.”

Julie McMillin RD, LD – Director - Health and Wellness, Hy-Vee: “They know that the product is safe and it is for sure gluten-free, they’re not having to take the time to dissect the labels”

Emily Galaezzi, Gluten-Free Shopper: “Especially all the brownies and cakes and stuff so you feel like if its your birthday you can just get that or Christmas you can just bake a pie so its easier and it just makes you feel better that you have more options.”

Packaged Facts estimates that only 10 percent of consumers purchasing gluten-free items do so because they or another family member have Celiac disease. And that is prompting some critics to wonder if the growth in the gluten-free foods is just a fad. But Hy-Vee officials believe the trend is here to stay.

Julie McMillin RD, LD – Director - Health and Wellness, Hy-Vee: “You know when we see individuals who go on the gluten-free diet and they see the results, they see the benefits, literally it’s life-changing. So once they’ve had that positive impact, they’re not going to change their diet back. They’re going to stay on the gluten-free diet.”

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.        


Tags: diet farmers gluten gluten-free foods grocery health Hy-Vee news product shopping

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