Foods labeled gluten-free are becoming commonplace as grocers and restaurants try to satisfy consumers' growing appetite for items free of wheat and other gluten-containing grains.
Manufacturers are adding gluten-free to the packaging of specially made items like breads, muffins and pizza crusts, and even inherently gluten-free foods like salsa, bottled water and eggs. Industry experts say it's partly a marketing effort to cash in on the gluten-free eating “trend,” but is also to promote awareness for consumers who have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
In people with celiac disease, gluten-containing foods cause damage to their gut, increasing the risk of serious health problems. It affects up to 3 million Americans and is on the rise, scientists say.
The market for gluten-free foods has mushroomed. Eight years ago, when Mitchell McKinnon was a salesman for food distributor Ben E. Keith Co., he had to look outside the company to buy products for a chef customer who had celiac disease.
Now grocery manager for Ben E. Keith's Oklahoma division, McKinnon said the company's gluten-free product category has grown to more than 600 items. A 10-inch gluten-free pizza crust is the most popular.
Janet Little, nutrition director for Sprouts Farmers Market, said food makers are responding to demand for gluten-free products by coming out with items that taste better and are healthier.
“There is a larger segment of the population that needs to eat gluten-free. We're always an advocate of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, but every now and then, people want to eat breads and muffins,” she said.
Good to know