Debate over growth potential of gluten free in the US

Debate over growth potential of gluten free in the US

In addition to being one of the world's largest markets for gluten-free foods, the US continues to represent one of its fastest growing.

Estimates regarding the size of the market vary by source - for example, data from Euromonitor suggests value sales rose from US$1.2bn to US$1.35bn in 2011. Meanwhile, Leatherhead Food Research estimates market value is closer to US$2.7bn at present, up by 30% from 2006.

Some industry sources feel the market may reach as high as US$5bn by the second half of the current decade. The US has certainly been a key focus of late for some of the market's leading suppliers. "We have expanded into the USA in the last three years... we have opened a dedicated gluten free factory in Logan, New Jersey," Emma Herring, UK retail brand manager at Dr Schär, says.

This view is echoed by Genius Foods CEO Roz Cuschieri. "In the past couple of years, we have expanded into the USA and we have ambitious plans for continued international growth."

From a consumer perspective at least, the potential for further growth of the US market seems promising. Recent studies suggest the number of people in the US suffering from coeliac disease has increased five-fold since the 1950s. It is thought up to three million people in the US may have coeliac disease, while an additional 40m suffer from some form of gluten intolerance or sensitivity. A study from market researchers NOP carried out this year found 30% of people agreed with the statement: "I'm trying to cut back or avoid gluten in my diet."

Penetration of gluten-free foods amongst US consumers is also thought to have been boosted by recent growth in popularity of the Paleo diet. This diet, which is based on the eating patterns of the Paleolithic period of 10,000 years ago, emphasises a low carbohydrate intake, as well as cutting out highly processed foods (of which grain is one such example).

Additionally, celebrities are also accrediting weight loss to gluten-free eating, leading to the growing perception that gluten free foods are generally healthier overall. Data from The Hartman Group indicates consumers between the ages of 25-34 and 50-64 are the most likely to buy gluten-free foods.

Growing distribution and hence availability has also contributed to the recent growth in the market. Mainstream food retail channels such as supermarkets now account for almost 80% of sales of gluten free foods - a stark contrast to the situation a decade ago, when gluten-free products were largely confined to specialist outlets such as natural and health food stores.

However, the expectation the US consumer base for gluten free foods will continue to expand is not universal. Last year, Dr Elizabeth Sloan, president of food industry forecasters Sloan Trends, suggested market growth would probably slacken off in a few years' time.

The main reasons for this forecast were two-fold. Firstly, it was felt the size of the market was too large in proportion to its actual consumer base, and the kind of growth experienced within the last few years was not sustainable.

Secondly, data from The Hartman Group indicates only 22% of people actually buy into the category because the products are marketed as being gluten-free. This suggests that gluten free is not the major selling point for many consumers, which will make building up customer loyalty more difficult. Furthermore, the high prices gluten-free foods typically command - in some cases, over twice as much as equivalents containing gluten - make the sector vulnerable to any future contraction in consumer spending.

Some of the most popular gluten-free foods in the US include bakery goods (especially bread and biscuits), as well as snack foods, granola bars, ready meals, pizza and soups. Although virtually all sectors experienced growth in the two years leading up to 2012, an increase in market value of up to 60% was recorded for gluten free bread, rolls and frozen dough. In the last year, meanwhile, high rates of NPD were observed within the gluten-free crackers, snack bars and fruit snacks segments. This suggests gluten free is starting to make inroads into the large US snacking market.

At present, the US market for gluten-free foods remains fairly fragmented in nature, with seven companies accounting for 30% of overall sales. The market is largely made up of multinationals which have expanded their ranges to cover gluten free, plus a number of smaller specialists.

One multinational that has contributed to the rising demand for gluten free foods is General Mills. In 2008, the company's Rice Chex became the first mainstream breakfast cereal brand in the US to carry gluten-free labelling.

General Mills' activity within the sector remains high - for example, some of its other cereals such as Corn Chex and Honey Nut Chex are now marketed on a gluten-free platform, while other brands such as Betty Crocker bakery mixes have also been extended into the category. Furthermore, General Mills launched a website (www.liveglutenfreely.com) in 2009, which helps coeliacs and those with a gluten intolerance seek out suitable products, recipes and foodservice establishments.

This trend towards companies becoming more proactive in gluten-free is also illustrated by recent events at PepsiCo. Not only has the company launched a gluten-free recipe section on its Frito-Lay North America website, but a number of its leading snacks - including Lay's Classic potato chips and Fritos Original corn chips - are now available in gluten-free varieties. PepsiCo is also engaged on a major initiative in partnership with dieticians and healthy food bloggers to improve the labelling of its gluten free foods.

As has been mentioned, gluten-free specialists such as Dr Schär and Genius have recently entered the US market. But they are coming up against some heavy-hitting domestic competition - and not just from reformulation by mainstream companies.

One of the largest domestic suppliers is Boulder Brands, which was known as Smart Balance until the start of 2013. The company owns major gluten-free brands such as Glutino and Udi's, and also acts as the distributor for the Genius brand in the US. Its product range includes bakery goods (e.g. bread, muffins, bagels and pastries), as well as pasta, snack foods, pizza, cereals and frozen ready meals. Meanwhile, Amy's Kitchen - the leading organic food brand in the US - also competes in the gluten-free sector in North America.

Click here for part three of the just-food management briefing, which looks at other growth markets around the world.