Global regulation of gluten-free labeling varies

Global regulation of gluten-free labeling varies

As the market for gluten-free foods expands in the future, it is highly likely that the way companies target and market their products may undergo some form of change.

Some notable changes are already occurring, of which perhaps the most significant is the fact companies are reaching out beyond people diagnosed with coeliac disease. "Companies have been shifting or broadening their focus of late... it is likely that we may see more of this in the years to come," says Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK,.

One such example is Dr Schär. "We only target those consumers with a medical need for a gluten free diet," Emma Herring, retail brand manager for Dr Schär, says. However, she adds: "New research showed that there are a group of consumers who are not coeliac but who experience symptoms which may improve following a gluten free diet. These consumers have been termed 'gluten sensitive'."

The company invites people within this consumer group to sign up to its website, as a result of which they can try a Dr Schär-branded gluten-free food for free. This instance serves as an example of how specialist gluten-free operators are taking an increasingly broader view of their target market, and adjusting their strategies accordingly.

In a similar vein, companies are also likely to continue targeting people with more general health concerns. Research in the US from The Hartman Group shows a third of people who buy gluten-free foods do so because of their perceived nutritional value, while a quarter favour gluten-free foods as an aid to weight loss. According to the same source, the people most likely to buy gluten-free foods are health-conscious consumers - as such, these will continue to represent the most likely target audience for manufacturers.

This growing perception of gluten-free foods as products possessing a broader range of health benefits is shared by Sleet. It was mentioned that some celebrities and high-profile sports people now had diets with a lower gluten load, and claiming to feel better and healthier as a result. This trend fits in with the perception held in some quarters that turning towards a gluten-free diet has become something of a lifestyle choice. Chris Hook, head of Warburtons' gluten free unit, says: "As awareness of symptoms rise, more and more people are self-diagnosing conditions such as gluten-sensitive, and thus choosing a gluten-free lifestyle."

Future marketing and promotional messages are also expected to stress the improving quality levels of many of the products on the market. "The quality of gluten-free foods continues to improve... all of our products are rigorously tested and benchmarked to be as close to the taste of mainstream equivalents as possible," Herring says.

The perception exists in some quarters within the food industry that quality levels for gluten-free foods have to either match or exceed their conventional equivalents before any long-term growth in demand can be sustained.

The future marketing environment is also likely to be shaped by brand activity. "Many of the well-known gluten free brands are taking a more mainstream approach to marketing, by pushing lifestyle messages for those who are not necessarily medically diagnosed [as coeliacs]," Hook says.

It remains to be seen if and how this situation changes should the food industry's larger players expand their gluten-free ranges. At present, many bigger firms appear content to adopt a 'wait-and-see' stance, although it has been shown that the extension of recognised and familiar brands into new areas can frequently succeed in expanding the consumer base.

Another key influence likely to impact upon the marketing of gluten-free foods in future is the regulatory environment - specifically, as it relates to product labelling and health claims. The growing significance of this kind of legislation has already been apparent in other areas of the food industry - one such example is functional foods, where health claims for some probiotic products have fallen foul of European regulatory authorities. Broadly speaking, there is now greater onus on food manufacturers to demonstrate a more robust approach to the science behind their health claims.

As far as gluten-free foods are concerned, labelling standards have been established for the global trade by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). These specify the standard gluten content foods must have in order to be labelled as gluten-free. It is likely that further regulations may be viewed as necessary as the gluten-free market develops - for example, some products which are naturally free from gluten (such as oats) can be labelled as such. Some in the industry feel this situation risks causing confusion amongst consumers.

Across the world, regulatory differences exist. Australia and New Zealand have some of the world's strictest gluten-free labelling legislation - in these countries, foods cannot be labelled as gluten-free unless there is no detectable gluten. In the EU, meanwhile, new regulations on gluten-free labelling came into force at the start of 2012. These stated that the term gluten-free can only be used on foods with 20 parts per million (ppm) or less of gluten, while the term  'very low gluten' is permitted for specialist gluten substitute foods (such as flour mixes) containing Codex wheat starch with a gluten level of between 21 and 100ppm.

Gluten-free labelling appears to be at a slightly earlier stage of development in the US. Back in 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed new rules to cover gluten free labelling, which would define gluten free as foods containing less than 20ppm of gluten. The proposed guidelines would also prohibit wheat, barley and rye as ingredients, and would be voluntary, rather than mandatory. At the time of writing, the proposed regulations are being reviewed by Washington, although the FDA had wanted them to be ratified by the end of 2012 at the latest.

As the situation stands in the US, many food manufacturers appear to have adopted the proposals as a guideline, even though the regulations have yet to come into force. The initiative undertaken by PepsiCo in 2012, for example, uses the 20ppm of gluten level as a guideline for Frito-Lay's gluten free products.