In case you haven’t heard, May is Celiac Awareness Month. That’s one reason shoppers may be seeing more gluten-free foods at their local grocer. The other reason: Everyone else is buying them too. Odd as it may seem to the gluten lovers among us, most of the people buying gluten-free cookies and crackers do so simply as a preference.
Only about 30 percent of people who buy celiac-friendly products do so because of a health condition, according to a survey of 2,000 adults by researcher Packaged Facts. Most cited other reasons, such as “gluten-free products are generally healthier,” “to manage my weight,” or “gluten-free products are low-carb.” And with the average “health-seeking” consumer now buying gluten-free, the market is growing quickly. U.S. retail sales of gluten-free foods and drinks are projected to grow to $6.6 billion in 2017, from $4.2 billion in 2012, estimates MarketResearch.com, which owns Packaged Facts. In 2001 sales were just $210 million.
Boulder Brands (BDBD), the gluten-free market leader in the U.S., has been one of the biggest winners. In 2012 its two gluten-free brands, Udi’s (which makes bread, cookies, granola bars, muffins, pizza, and tortillas) and Glutino (breads, baking mixes, breakfast bars, cereals, snacks, frozen foods, and toaster pastries), combined for sales of about $160 million, up 50 percent from a year earlier.
Consumers say they’re cutting out gluten to eat healthier. So what are they buying? A lot of processed snacks, it seems (some might even call it junk food). “There’s a lot of snacking going on,” says Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer for grocery and snacks at Hain Celestial. According to MarketResearch.com, the best-selling category is snack bars—also a relatively new phenomenon—at 15.4 percent of gluten-free sales, followed by frozen entrees (11.9 percent) and crackers (11.8 percent).
Seeing that gluten-free consumers aren’t interested only in rice pasta and quinoa, big snackmakers are benefiting from new labeling. Putman says sales of Hain Celestial’s Garden of Eatin’ brand products have increased about 19 percent since the company started labeling them gluten-free in early 2012. General Mills during a recent conference also said: “Chex is one of the fastest-growing brands in the cereal aisle, thanks to several varieties that are gluten-free. Retail sales have increased at a double-digit annual rate in recent years and are up another 9 percent this year.”
Observers don’t expect growth to slow in the near future. “All indications are that gluten-free does have staying power,” says Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at MarketResearch.com. At least until the next health craze comes along.