The rise of gluten-free

From gluten-free cake to gluten-free pizza, recipes, menu options and retail have all woken up to the demand for gluten-free. But at what point did gluten go from being the concern of suffers of Coeliac disease to a lifestyle choice of the rich and famous and why have so many operators taken it to heart.


In the US, the gluten-free market experienced a 44% growth from 2011-2013 and was touted as the USA’s most important food trend by the NRA in 2013. Supermarket comparison site released a study this week saying that gluten-free products now make up a tenth of shoppers baskets across major retailers in the UK.

And the eating-out sectors have caught on quickly too. According to Horizon’s Autumn 2014 eating out survey, in the UK, 78% of operators say the knowledge of the gluten-free market has, or will, impact the dishes they serve. Coeliac UK, a charity dedicated to those suffering with the condition said it now accredits 2,300 venues across the UK. In its database of UK providers, 23% of operators now have a gluten-free option on their menus.

It’s clear then the industry has taken this issue to heart. But how has something that was once considered a fairly obscure intolerance, only affecting about one in every hundred people, become such a driving force behind the menu development of some of the world’s biggest brands?

It is partly a legislative issue. New regulations, which were introduced in the EU in 2011-12 and followed by the FDA’s guidelines in August 2013, issued a set of guidelines defining what can and can’t be labelled gluten free. In the UK the changes gave rise to concern in the sector that new guidelines would be too difficult to adhere to, says Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK. This, she said, gave her organisation an opening to start working with the hospitality sector.

“The bottom line was actually, with some good practice and nothing that required a huge amount of investment and special equipment, you could deliver a gluten-free dish at the end of it.”

Then, she says: “We went out there and shouted about it”.

Sleet identifies three main groups driving the growing market for gluten-free options. Firstly, and the group her organisation is most concerned with, are those who suffer from Coeliac disease, a lifelong autoimmune condition.

Central to Coeliac UK’s “shouting” technique was a tireless reiteration of the potential customers this group could bring through the door. An “untapped market” that, without clearly labelled options, had previously found it almost impossible to eat out at all.

“There were so many people who weren’t eating out because they couldn’t find gluten-free options. If operators could actually deal with that issue there was at least a £100m market that simply wasn’t being tapped.

“Quite simply, there are more and more people with coeliac disease who are being diagnosed, who want those offerings, and they are going to bring a lot of people with them.”

Secondly, says Sleet, is the emerging group who could be suffering from another condition, currently labelled non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. This group are not affected by Coeliac disease, and tend to be “self-medicating”, she says, but are often finding significant successes with removing gluten and soothing gastric problems. The existence of this sensitivity is not yet proved, she says, and the “science is still catching up”.

The third group is driven by what she calls the “celeb-factor”. With figures such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who has reportedly put her children on a gluten-free diet, and tennis player Novak Djokovic who has put recent successes down to his voluntary gluten-free lifestyle, touting the health benefits of going gluten free, they are a powerful force keeping gluten on the minds of health-conscious eaters and operators alike.

“All of those things coming together has meant that the catering sector has a ready market,” says Sleet. “There is growing and big market of people who either simply have to eat gluten free or just want those options available and will sometimes dip into them and sometimes won’t.”

It is likely these last two groups, those who are electing gluten-free as a lifestyle choice that are driving a lot of the attention from operators, says Emma Read from Horizons.

“It’s a general well-being issue,” she says. “Customers want to be able to make that lifestyle choice.”

Consumers are now much more sophisticated, she says. “They understand about gluten intolerance and lactose intoelerance and understand about GI and superfoods. It’s more than just understanding about calories and saturated fats.

“Customers are aware, they want transparency and operators are responding to that,” she said.

“By having good menus and marketing it well they are making an overt statement to their customers. Not only can you get a good choice of food if you are intolerant, but the brand understands what their customers want and understands the issues of the day.”

And besides, she says, “they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t selling”.

Ellie Clayton