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The Future of Gluten-Free

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The future of the gluten-free market: Great tasting products with higher standards.

By Chris Rich

Every year, those in the world of natural products gather in Anaheim, Calif., for the largest expo in the natural foods industry. Drawing more than 80,000 people, Expo West provides companies the opportunity to showcase their products to buyers, distributors, influencers and the general natural product community. Each year, the Gluten Intolerance Group’s (GIG) Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) has a front-row seat to all of the excitement from our booth on the main expo floor.

Over the years, we have seen booms, trends and the “next big things” change and evolve the marketplace. In past years, especially 2014 and 2015, gluten-free was the hot topic, with new products everywhere on the show floor. And while items such as coconut water and CBD products have now become the new “hot” thing, gluten-free products and companies are still prevalent in high numbers.

At the 2019 show, one out of every nine booths had a product that has gone through the GFCO certification process. That being said, there is an interesting trend happening in the gluten-free industry that was hidden in plain sight on the expo floor and requires a little bit of history to fully understand.

The Emergence of Gluten-Free

When GIG started its GFCO certification program 14 years ago, the demand for gluten-free products was due to medical necessity. Individuals with celiac disease or gluten-related sensitivities need to remove gluten from their diets to prevent their body from attacking itself and creating one to several different ailments or symptoms. In recent years though, the gluten-free diet has made it into the mainstream. This is partially due to more people being diagnosed with this auto-immune disorder, but also because of dietary-conscious consumers becoming more aware of health issues and healthy-eating habits. Some started to call the diet a “fad.” Through a combination of individuals feeling better when eating gluten-free products and unsanctioned endorsements of the diet from celebrities, there was a high demand for new products in the marketplace.

Around this same time, the FDA passed new regulations stating that if a product contained more than 20 ppm of gluten, the packaging could not say that the product was gluten-free. This decision was both good and bad for the gluten-free community in that it raised additional consumer awareness, but at the same time, did not establish any testing by the companies to hold them accountable for their gluten-free claim. The result was a rush of options for the consumers to choose from, combined in many cases with a sacrifice to quality.

While still an improvement over the gluten-free options found less than a decade ago, this decrease in quality is not something that the educated gluten-free consumer is embracing. It is why consumers feel that the GFCO certification is the most reliable indicator of gluten-free safety on the market and a necessary component to filter out sub-par products.

Renewed Focus on Quality

This focus on quality is what we saw at Expo West this year. GIG and GFCO watch the marketplace with a keen eye, and numbers are indicating that the number of gluten-free products entering the marketplace may plateau in about five years. The reason for this is the decline of people being gluten-free by choice and a move back to the diet being more recognized as a medical necessity. This change will result in the gluten-free consumer demanding even higher quality from manufacturers. Consumers are going to want great tasting products with more stringent and higher testing standards applied, so companies are going to have to step up their game.

Unfortunately, we are seeing some smaller companies unable to keep up with these consumer demands and falling by the wayside. Conversely, we noted that we had even more product exhibitors seeking GFCO certification at this year’s show. They recognize that by participating in a voluntary certification program, their product will hold a mark representing higher standards and additional product testing that consumers are seeking. This demand for quality is not just focused on the smaller manufacturers. Also prevalent at Expo West was the rise of conglomerate companies, many of which have bought out smaller gluten-free brands that the consumer recognizes.

Again though, the gluten-free community is smart and while big company buyouts could help the price point of their favorite products, they are not going to stand for a decrease in quality. The customer is in control, and while Expo West is a show not open to the public, the presence of the gluten-free consumer was felt this year in Anaheim and will continue to be a huge part of this show for years to come.

Chris Rich  is vice president of development for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), the industry leader in the certification of gluten-free products and food services through its programs, Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) and Gluten-Free Food Services (GFFS) Certification. Chris became a part of the gluten-free community when his son was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2013, and he is an advocate for gluten-free kids and teens. For more information, visit www.gluten.org, and contact Chris at Chris.Rich@gluten.org.

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