A gluten-free for all drives product sales

Sep 28, 2011, 10:45 a.m.
Co-owner Nancy Truman prepares a box of donuts for a customer at Fonuts bakery, which offers unfried, gluten-free and vegan donuts, in Los Angeles, California September 19, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Top-notch professional athletes are the only other people who get some measurable benefit from cutting out gluten without a doctor's orders, he said. Eliminating dietary gluten appears to free up energy that otherwise would be used to break down the tough-to-digest protein, said Fasano, who joked that athletes use the diet as a "legal performance enhancer."

Still, he does not mind that fads are boosting sales.

"If anything, it's good for the market" because the extra customers should help improve quality and lower cost, he said.

Interest from big retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc also should help bring down gluten-free product prices, which run 2 percent to 3 percent higher than similar items containing gluten, said Alice Bast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Consumers have been preoccupied with food sensitivity for some time (remember lactose intolerance?) and there is growing interest in foods that support digestive and overall health, said Tamara Barnett, ethnographic research manager at the Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm. Gluten-free products overlap those trends, she said.

Better-tasting products also help.

"They went from being sawdust to being really good," said "Living Gluten-Free for Dummies" author Danna Korn.

Shauna James Ahern was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005 and recommends focusing on readily available and naturally gluten-free foods such as fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat.

The cookbook author and "Gluten-Free Girl" blogger, says the category has staying power and suspects she knows why people who do not have a medical reason for going gluten-free feel better when they do.

"They're eating whole foods for the first time in their lives," she says.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; editing by Andre Grenon)

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