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Gluten-free remains one of the most dynamic health and wellness categories

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Gluten-free food has delivered an outstanding performance for quite a number of years. Even in recession-hit 2009, the category achieved double-digit global value sales growth of 11% (calculated based on a 2009 fixed US$ exchange rate), compared to a much more sedate 3% for overall health and wellness products. Over the 2004-2009 review period gluten-free food registered a CAGR of 15%, a stronger performance than the 10% achieved by the food intolerance category as a whole.

In 2009, gluten-free food registered global value sales of US$2.3 billion, accounting for 27% of food intolerance sales. Half of these sales were generated by bakery products, traditionally the most relevant category. Baby food and pasta are also sizeable categories, accounting for around 10% of total sales each. Other gluten-free foods – anything from sauces and condiments to desserts – are also proliferating, with combined global value sales of US$642 million in 2009, and a very dynamic growth rate of 15%.

Allergy to gluten - a common problem

There are several factors fuelling the rampant growth of gluten-free food. For one, coeliac disease, a genetic disorder requiring sufferers to follow a life-long gluten-free diet, is much more common than was once thought. Coeliac disease only started receiving attention in the 1960s when the focus was mainly on infants who were failing to thrive. Back then, the condition was estimated to affect one in every 1,000 live births and believed to afflict predominantly babies of Caucasian ethnicity. Adults with mild and “non-classical” symptoms remained largely undiagnosed.

Finally, in the late 1990s, reliable blood tests became more widely available and the medical world was hit by the profound realisation that coeliac disease was by no means a rare condition – incidence figures had suddenly leapt to one out of every 100-300 individuals in the general population worldwide. Equally significant was the conclusion that coeliac disease was a global problem affecting people of all ethnicities, rather than just those of European origin.

But improved diagnostic methods are only part of the story behind the gluten-free food boom. Increasing media coverage of the sheer array of insidious symptoms suffered by gluten-intolerant individuals, such as fatigue, weight gain, skin rashes and lack of concentration, has turned gluten almost into an “enemy of wellness”. Nowadays, a significant proportion of gluten-free shoppers are not diagnosed coeliacs but individuals who have diagnosed themselves as being sensitive to gluten, and are cutting it out of their diets with the aim of improving their wellbeing.

Retailers the world over have not only responded to this trend but have actively aided its growth by stocking an increasing number of gluten-free brands and introducing gluten-free private label lines. In some countries, the private label share is substantial. For instance, Euromonitor International's research shows that in Austria private label accounted for 31% of gluten-free product value sales in 2009, up from 24% in 2004. In Switzerland, it accounted for a 62% share in 2009, in the UK 31% and in Ireland 16%. Globally private label accounts for around a 3% share of total gluten-free product value sales. Retailers have therefore proven to be an instrumental force in moving gluten-free from a medicalised niche category into the realm of mainstream health and wellness foods.

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