Celiac.com 02/11/2014 - Looks like the gluten-free market will see growth again in 2014, at least, according to a survey conducted as part of the Market LOHAS MamboTrack Annual Natural & Organic Consumer Study, and funded by FreeBird Chicken and Plainville Farms Turkey, both part of the HAIN Corporation (Nasdaq: HAIN).

Photo: CC--jameskm03Interestingly, the survey was not dedicated to gluten-free dieters, but to "health conscious" consumers. In the survey, at least seven out of ten said that they frequently purchased products labeled gluten-free, and at least four in ten stated they planned on purchasing more gluten-free products in the coming year. The survey they conducted also predicted more "farm-to-table" product requests, and an emphasis on natural farming techniques.

How This Affects Gluten-free Consumers
As the gluten-free lifestyle becomes more mainstream rather than niche, there will likely be an influx of products and services available to gluten-free consumers across the entire U.S., versus just in the trendier and more health-conscious West Coast and East Coast areas. Gluten-free items will eventually be making their way into smaller local grocers and hometown markets as both the demand from health conscious consumers and newly diagnosed celiac disease and Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance sufferers continues. Grocery store shoppers will increasingly see gluten-free sections or aisles, or an increase in boxes and cans marked "Gluten-Free."

One can only assume that the demand will not only increase availability, even in smaller gluten-free markets such as the "Bread Basket States" and the Midwest, but will also allow prices on gluten-free products will also level out. With the cost of gluten-free products being so much higher (sometimes as much as 30% more) than their traditional counterparts, this is a great thing for celiac patients and those with gluten intolerance.

On the flip-side, though, there may also be a down-side to the increased availability of gluten-free products: the loss of nutritional quality at the expense of providing lower prices and meeting higher demands.

The biggest fear is that no longer will these "gluten-free products" offer healthy alternatives, but rather, just non-gluten-containing versions of already nutritionally unstable foods.

Most Americans are attracted to convenience foods, or "pre-boxed" or "pre-made" foods because of their affordability and quick preparation times that fit busy-lifestyles perfectly. Major food industry manufacturers of course know this applies to newly diagnosed Celiac and gluten-intolerant individuals as mush as it does to "average" consumers. And, so, many more "convenience foods" and "snack-type foods" are sure to appear in the coming months.

As more major food industry players get involved in processing gluten-free foods, the gluten-free dieter will be given the opportunity to purchase MORE VARIETY, but not necessarily HEALTHIER or MORE NUTRITIONAL VARIEITIES of products. Instead, as of late, gluten-free consumers are seeing more "overly-processed" food options enter into the marketplace; which, by all means are gluten-free, but may be pretty scant when it comes to actual nutritional value. A white powdered prepackaged donut is still a donut, regardless of whether or not it is processed with gluten-free flour blends or is made with "traditional" white flour. In other words, a gluten-free donut is really no healthier than a non-gluten-free donut in terms of nutritional value. This is especially true if the manufacturer uses starches with relatively low-nutritional-value because they also happen to be "inexpensive" to produce food with. (Thus, still increasing their bottom line profits even if they appear to lower the price of gluten-free foods on the shelf.)

Before the mass production of gluten-free products, one would have had to adjust their entire diet. (No donuts or traditional cakes and MSG- containing canned and frozen meals.) Therefore, those who became healthier from the diet became so by avoiding gluten AND by the necessity to make wiser food choices all together like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, homemade food and "small batch" gluten-free products made with high quality ingredients and sense of responsibility and concern for the gluten-free consumer’s response to their product as well as their health and well-being.

This advent and introduction of new products and cheaper products by big industry (the pastas, breads, mixes, and myriad of ready-to-eat canned and frozen gluten-free options from big-box suppliers) might actually make it more complicated for consumers in the long run.

While there are definite differences, there may be some parallels in the emergence of "gluten-free products" with the emergence of "sugar-free products" manufactured for the rising diabetic market. In 1980, 5.8 million people were diagnosed with diabetes (Source: CDC). No coincidence that this is the same time period that sugar substitutes and "sugar-free" versions really began to swarm the market. What might appear on the surface to be a "healthier" option to someone who is suffering from diabetes (or gluten intolerance) might later prove to be just a slick bandaid-type-solution to a much-deeper nutritional issue.

In conclusion, while the expanding market promises new products and more availability, it is always wise to read labels carefully, eat whole, natural foods, and to educate yourself on nutrition and gluten intolerances whenever possible so that you can make informed decisions on your health instead of taking your cues from brands and advertisers.

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