For those sensitive to gluten, a routine trip to the grocery store is marked by copious amounts of label scrutiny. In the end, even the most safe looking foods and beverages can belie hidden glutens that could have infiltrated the products via cross contamination during the production/preparation phase.
To help protect unsuspecting consumers in the EU, in February the Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued new rules for foods carrying the “gluten free” label and mandated standards for testing and measuring gluten levels in food.
Under the new rules, foods labeled “gluten free” must have less than 20 parts of gluten per million. This new standard represents a ten-fold reduction over the prior rules, which set the gluten limit at 200 parts per million. The FSA also established a separate labeling category for cereals that have been specially processed to reduce gluten to levels below 100 parts per million. These foods cannot be labeled “gluten free,” but can carry some other label such as “gluten reduced” or “very low gluten.”
European food makers can voluntarily adopt the new labeling system at any time. The date for mandatory compliance for all EU food makers is Jan. 1, 2012, which affords a window of opportunity to manufacturers in need of time for product reformulations and packaging changes.
Forthcoming U.S. Regs
Stateside, consumers have awaited gluten free labeling regulations since the 2004 passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which included a provision for FDA to develop and implement rules for using the term “gluten free” on food packaging. The bulk of that work will hinge on a voluntary consumer study titled “Gluten Free Labeling of Food Products Experimental Study.” The study will gauge consumer perceptions of various gluten free claims as well as consumer reaction to a product carrying a gluten claim concurrently with a statement about the amount of gluten the product contains. The deadline for comment submission expired earlier this month.
The ongoing lack of FDA mandates compelled one organization to move forward and perform GF certifications for food and supplement companies. The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), a non-profit program of The Gluten Intolerance Group, has been independently supervising gluten free food production according to “a consistent, defined, science-based standard that is confirmed by field inspections” for four years and has two additional international certification programs, one in the U.K. and one in Australia.
GFCO’s Cynthia Kupper explained that applicants must submit their plants and raw materials to a strict risk assessment and third party audit. The company also agrees to regular onsite testing (spanning raw materials, equipment and finished products) and submits to regular audits. “The GFCO standard is less than 10 ppm gluten, twice as strict as the proposed FDA definition,” commented Ms. Kupper.
In April, Country Life Vitamins became the first supplement company to achieve gluten free certification. Though the company has produced primarily gluten free vitamins and nutritional supplements since 1971, the company’s entire 500 SKU product line is now completely free of gluten. “It’s like GMPs—why say you are gluten free without taking that extra step to get certified?” commented the company’s spokesperson, Jodi Drexler Billet. “A lot of companies say they’re gluten free and I’m happy we took the extra step. It’s well worth it for people to feel confident in the products they buy.”
Despite the continued waiting game for gluten free labeling regulations, consumers are still enjoying an ever-expanding variety of gluten free foods. No longer obscure and relegated to health food stores, foods brandishing unofficial gluten free labels have found a broadening niche in grocery stores across the country.
The market for gluten-free food and beverage products grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28% from 2004 to 2008 to finish with almost $1.6 billion in retail sales last year, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts in its report, “The Gluten-Free Food and Beverage Market: Trends and Developments Worldwide, 2nd Edition.”
Packaged Facts predicts that the ensuing years will bring double-digit growth due to the existence of more gluten free products in stores through both product introduction and the conversion of existing products to gluten free status.
Last year more than 225 marketers introduced new gluten free products into the U.S. By 2012 the market is expected to reach about $2.6 billion in sales.
The increased diagnosis of CD has been a catalyst and driving force in the gluten free food and beverage market, rescuing it from being generally regarded as merely a dietary fad. “Evidence shows that the patients that comprise the Celiac community are not willing to be passive sufferers,” said Tatjana Meerman, publisher of Packaged Facts. “Their passion to live a full life without gluten must be considered one of the most powerful driving forces in the market.”
In fact, the awareness has swelled so much that major national food companies have taken steps to reformulate their products so that they are gluten free, the most prominent of which is General Mills.
Last year the company unveiled its reformulated gluten free Rice Chex cereal and earlier this month it announced that five additional gluten free Chex varieties would also roll out nationwide this summer—Corn Chex, Honey Nut Chex, Chocolate Chex, Cinnamon Chex and Strawberry Chex—all of which are freshly devoid of barley malt, a gluten-containing sweetener.
“Innovation and strong consumer insight prompted the reformulation of gluten free Rice Chex a year ago, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive; in fact, our consumer services hotline has been flooded with calls and comments from thousands of happy Chex fans,” said Adrienne Daniels, Chex marketing manager. “For the first time, people looking for a tasty, gluten free cereal can shop the main cereal aisle at their market without paying a premium.”
General Mills is also gearing up for the June debut of four Betty Crocker brand dessert mixes—Yellow Cake Mix, Devil’s Food Cake Mix, Brownie Mix and Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix.
The idea for the mixes developed out of personal need after two of the company’s co-workers found themselves thrust into the world of living gluten free. “Their experiences opened our eyes to the challenges families face following the diet. It’s hard to be different, especially when it affects sweet moments with friends and family,” said Pam Becker, spokesperson. “No one wants to miss sharing a birthday cake or see their child have to turn down a homemade cookie from a buddy after a game.”
Ms. Becker added that the products are carefully selected and screened for gluten free ingredients, made in a gluten free processing facility, and are routinely subjected to analytical tests to confirm the products’ gluten free claim.
GFCO’s Ms. Kupper is excited by the public’s current level of awareness and the ensuing response from the restaurant industry, food industry and medical community. But from a product point of view, the food and nutraceuticals industry, she said, is still operating on a learning curve. She also noted that the nutraceuticals industry in particular is the next area that the gluten free movement will focus on.
“Nutraceutical and OTC companies are starting to ask questions and ponder the benefits. They may not fully understand this consumer group and their needs,” concluded Ms. Kupper. “Consumers are starting grassroots efforts to force OTC companies to follow GF labeling definitions and label their products. They demand to be able to buy generic and mainstream products that they don’t feel comfortable buying right now. They want to know their supplements are safe and clearly identified as gluten free.”
GF Oats? Sure!
Oats play a pivotal role in health, especially when it comes to cardiovascular wellbeing. Although oats are technically gluten free, they are usually relegated to “do not eat” status in the gluten free diet because they are readily cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains during the production process.
Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods recently launched a line of gluten free oats—rolled and steel cut—that were an immediate hit within the gluten free community. After fielding requests for several years, the company located a Canadian co-op farm and spent a year testing and readying the products for market.
“Beyond providing the gluten free oats, we also had work to do with the gluten free community to ensure them that eating oats, a previously restricted item, would be a safe venture,” commented Cassidy Stockton, marketing project coordinator for Bob’s Red Mill.
She went on to explain how far-reaching oat cross-contamination can be. “It goes much deeper than simply processing the oats on a separate machine. Oat crops have historically been rotated with wheat crops, causing cross-contamination right at field level. Because the oat groat and the wheat berry are nearly the same size and shape, it is difficult for machinery to separate the two and for some people with celiac disease, a kernel of wheat is all it would take for them to get very sick.”
The products are tested at various stages during the production process, beginning at the moment they arrive at the plant and ending with additional tests after packaging.
After the products launched, the company experienced a minor taste setback due to the oat’s inherent problem with stabilization. “Oats are very susceptible to oxidation due to the enzymes inherent in the groat. Our supplier of oats was supplying us with gluten free oats, but these were not fully stabilized and the flavor was off,” said Ms. Stockton. “The issue came about after we began ordering truckloads of oats and essentially putting too much demand on their production capabilities, resulting in a lower quality of oat. Ultimately, we had to stop producing gluten free oats until this issue was rectified.”
Bob’s Red Mill spent the last year overhauling its stabilization process to resolve the issue and last month began processing its gluten free oats once again. The new products should reach store shelves in the next few months.