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May 24, 2013

Gluten-Free: Not Just A Flash in the (Loaf) Pan

FC_content_IMG_glutenIf you don’t know anyone who’s on a gluten-free diet, geez, are you hanging with the wrong crowd! Everyone who’s anyone is embracing the alleged answer to everything from upset stomachs to obesity.  The USDA estimates that the gluten-free industry reached $1.9 billion last year in sales, as companies, both large and small, put some (gluten-free) chips in the game.

How did such a little known substance get to be so important?

Time for today’s back to school lesson.

Gluten is a combination of proteins in wheat, barley or rye. When you knead bread, you develop the gluten, which results in a finished product that becomes elastic, light and chewy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that certain people have a genetic predisposition that leads to an intolerance of gluten. The resulting disease is called celiac and it’s on the rise: At least three million people have been diagnosed in this country, and it’s estimated that there are many more who haven’t been tested.  It’s speculated that the increase is due to a) to better testing and b) to new varieties of wheat cultivated with more gluten. (There will be a quiz.)

Back in the ‘90s, those who suffered from celiac basically had to take what they could get. There were few gluten-free products on the market, and what they lacked in airiness, they made up for in bad taste. Restaurants? Forget about it. Then, around 2009, the gluten-free stars aligned. Small artisan companies like Denver-based Udi’s developed gluten-free products – breads, muffins, cinnamon rolls - that tasted like the real thing. Sales grew from $4.3 million in 2009 to $60.9 in 2011-2012.  (Udi’s Healthy Foods –  the gluten-free division of the company,  was recently sold to Smart Balance for $125 million). 

At the same time major players, like General Mills, began to sniff the sweet smell of (gluten-free) bread-baking success. Starting with Rice Chex, the company began re-formulating their products to launch a line that would be gluten-free.

(And by the way, if a product says gluten-free, it ‘s allowed to have 20 parts per million, the smallest amount of gluten that can be detected under current testing.  The gluten-free label is covered under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, although the FDA is currently reviewing the “gluten-free” standard.)  

At the same time, athletes and celebrities - some diagnosed, some not – began to talk about the health benefits of “going gluten-free,” and word began to spread.  Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View, who has celiac, wrote and heavily promoted the G-Free Diet: A Gluten Free Survival Guide in 2009. Soon friends were telling friends how great they  felt on their gluten-free program. On Hasselbeck’s G-Free book website, it states, “Hasselbeck also discovered the myriad benefits that anyone can enjoy from a gluten-free diet, from weight loss and increased energy to improved attention span and quicker digestion.”  

The trend has changed nearly every menu in town, where restaurants even broadcast their gluten-free foods as a selling point. Whether or not people are fashionably gluten-free or actually suffering from celiac disease, they want to eat out and have choices.  “It’s a restaurant’s job to accommodate everyone,” says restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, and rightly so.

Due to the faddish nature of many of gluten’s new fans, some wonder if the trend is here to stay. The verdict is still out, but Imergamo believes that restaurants, at least, are in it for the long haul.

“In 10 years, the hangers-on will have moved on to the next thing, but the people who are gluten intolerant are getting used to eating in restaurants, something they couldn’t do a few years ago.” He cites his client Panzano’s in the Hotel Monaco in Denver as a case in point. “Who would have thought that an Italian restaurant would have gluten-free foods, including gluten-free pastas and breads?”

Sounds like the answer to “is gluten-free here to stay?” is simple: You betcha.



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