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Get to Know Gluten-Free

The gluten-free landscape is changing. Supermarkets are busy expanding their offerings, and more than one cafe I visit now has little "gluten-free" signs posted next to select bakery items.

Driving the demand, of course, is the growing number of Americans diagnosed with celiac disease — about 1 in 3,600 right now. But studies show that the actual number may be closer to 1 in 100, for Americans of European decent. One expert suggests it is the most misdiagnosed disease in America — mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome (among others).

In our recent 2011 Mambo Outlook survey, we learned that many natural and organic consumers were increasing their commitment to gluten-free foods.

About 1 in 2 (49%) were already buying gluten-free products, at least occasionally. And of all our respondents — 27% — said they planned to increase their gluten-free shopping in 2011.

Why? They gave a lot of reasons: a household member with celiac or gluten intolerance (50%), an increase in gluten-free products (57%), and greater availability of those items on store shelves (50%).

In fact, 69% of shoppers are buying gluten-free items at their supermarket — a higher percentage than those shopping at a natural foods chain (66%) or local health food store (48%). That's testimony that the mainstream grocery market is seeing (and responding to) increased consumer demand.

What I'm hearing and reading is that there is a growing awareness of gluten intolerance. Many people aren't even bothering to get a confirmed diagnosis anymore. They just know they feel better when they don't eat wheat — or even if they just eat less.

What's the problem? Well according to Annalise G. Roberts, author of Gluten-Free Baking Classics, it's a matter of evolution and modern food science.

"The industrial and agricultural revolutions of the past 200 years have changed our diet faster than we can change genetically," she writes. What's more, today’s wheat crops may have as much as 50% more gluten than they did a few centuries ago. More gluten = better baking.

What you may find shocking is that, according to Roberts, gluten is one of the most common additives in packaged goods, second only to sugar. For people with serious levels of gluten intolerance (when exposure to wheat triggers days of illness) that's a real problem.

Get to know your gluten-free customers. Is it time you added a gluten-free aisle? Are you promoting the section you have?

There is opportunity here — opportunity for the grocery industry, for food producers, and even for chefs and restaurants. But above all, there is an opportunity for nearly three million Americans to feel better.