Big retail backs gluten-free

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gluten-free diet

More demanding consumers and opportunity-hungry retailers are driving innovation in the gluten-free market, according to the chief executive of British charity Coeliac UK.

In the final part of FoodNavigator’s special on gluten-free, Coeliac UK’s Sarah Sleet talks to Stephen Daniells about how pushing the retailers can drive innovation in gluten-free foods.

A significant advance in the gluten-free market was the entrance of the major retailers, who saw an opportunity to develop their free-from ranges. The retailers picked specialist suppliers to produce their own range. “The retailers drive very hard bargains about standards. Their entrance brought about a sea change in the approach to gluten-free,”​ said Sleet.

Since it was valued at a modest $580m in 2004, the global market has grown at an average annual rate of 29 per cent and last year was worth $1.56bn, according to Packaged Facts. It could be worth as much as $2.6bn by 2012.

“As the market has grown, the ability of companies to investment [in R&D] has grown,”​ said Sleet. “And the arrival of new entrants has driven competition.”

Coeliac UK is the leading charity working for people with coeliac disease with 85,000 registered members. The charity is very active in engaging the food business, whether it be increasing brand loyalty or advising companies exploring the potential of the gluten-free waters.

About 20 years ago the prevalence of coeliac disease was 1 in 1,000. Today the figure is closer to 1 in 100, and this is mostly down to better, and earlier, diagnosis, said Sleet.

There has been an EU-wide growth in the market, and new entrants into the market that have also been EU-wide. “We are also seeing consolidation across Europe, with brands buying up smaller brands,”​ she said.

And the consumers themselves are becoming more demanding: Earlier diagnosis of the condition produces a different breed of gluten-free consumer. “If you haven’t been really sick, if you haven’t experienced what that is like, and you now have to stick to a gluten-free diet then the incentive is less,”​ explained Sleet. “We have to provide a diet that they want to stick to,”​ she said. “This means more products, and more innovation on the shelves.”

“Basically what we want is for the specialist products to be the same as mainstream products,”​ she added.

And where the best products are bought is of key interest to retailers, because this mostly decides where the whole family’s groceries are bought. “When we’ve talked to retailers and suppliers it is clear that for many people what’s on offer in the shop determines where the whole family shops,”​ said Sleet.

Progress is being made. Indeed, a brand called Genius was recently launched in the UK to much acclaim. The bread, invented by Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, who is also the author of the book, How to cook for Food Allergies, was described by Sleet as: “A really good quality product”​.

There has been a real improvement in the retail area, said Sleet, and the tick was now to get the catering sector to follow. “Retail leads the way and catering follows in just the same way as we had with the provision of vegetarian foods,” ​she said. “By helping to push the retail market we’re hoping to get catering to come along.”

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