SPECIAL FEATURE – Latest developments in Celiac and Gluten-free news

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 10th October 2012

The market for gluten-free products has been continuously growing, however, a new vaccine for celiac disease and serious criticism of over-marketing of gluten free products are threatening to spoilt the party.

Celiac.com has reported that gluten-free sales in the U.S. hit $2.64 billion in 2010, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30% over the 2006-2010 period, according to Packaged Facts. A report by the Frost & Sullivan consulting firm had estimated retail sales of packaged foods free of the protein are approaching $2 billion a year in the U.S.  According to Celiac.com Website, sales are expected to continue growing—even exceeding $5 billion by the year 2015.

The growth of gluten-free parallels the growth of celiac disease, a gluten intolerance that has doubled in case numbers every 15 years since 1974, according to University of Maryland study. With an increasing number of Americans diagnosed with Celiac, not to mention many more non-diagnosed individuals finding health benefits from avoiding gluten, the market has a ready audience.

Brands already active in the marketplace
Despite requiring specialty flours and premium ingredients that typically are more expensive and higher priced than their conventional counterpart, gluten-free products have been hot-sellers which is why so many companies and brands are jumping into the gluten-free market.

Food-manufacturing giant General Mills, the company behind Cheerios and Betty Crocker, now offers hundreds of products with the gluten-free label; Kelloggs has a range of gluten-free Rice Krispies; and beer manufacturer, Anheuser-Busch sells Redbridge, a gluten-free beer. There is a long list of gluten-free menu options at US restaurant chains such as P.F. Chang’s, a wide variety of gluten-free options at specialty grocers like Whole Foods Market (a grocery that has more than doubled its gluten-free products in the last five years); and designated sections of gluten-free products at most major supermarkets, including Kroger, Publix and Wal-Mart.

The problem for the celiac community

Given the money that is being generated by sales in the gluten-free market, and as the idea grows in popularity among celebrities, athletes, etc., it is not surprising to see so many different brands providing gluten-free options. The problem, however, is not that companies are offering gluten-free products—but many products labeled “gluten-free” are often cross-contaminated in production, making them still seriously unsafe for celiac patients. For patients diagnosed with celiac disease, going gluten-free is more than a trend—it’s a necessity.

One example of this struggle was in the US when Domino’s gluten-free pizza crust was found to have traces of gluten, and the company admits itself it “cannot guarantee … will be completely free from gluten.” For someone jumping on the gluten-free fad diet, the pizza is perfect; for someone with celiac, it’s a reminder of how hard eating out can be. Likewise, Starbucks and some other retailers have each said they cannot guarantee a gluten-free environment.

Will a new vaccine for Celiac Disease impact this lucrative market?

The answer arguably is Yes, with promise of the first effective vaccine for gluten intolerance just around the corner. Although several companies claim to be in the ‘test’ stages of developing a vaccine, US drug company ImmusanT says that that Nexvax2 “changes the human immune system so that it no longer attacks gluten.”

ImmusanT, producers of the new Nexvax2 vaccine, estimate to start clinical trials in late 2012, with the hope of releasing the vaccine by 2017. Suggesting that a prevention to gluten intolerance will be available in just five years, it poses questions on whether this lucrative market will be able to continue.

The Nexvax2 vaccine contains microscopic protein particles that due to their size, are not attacked by the human immune system as regular gluten would be. Nexvax2, said to produce best results in a series of vaccinations, will introduce slightly more protein particles each time so that the human immune system develops immunity to gluten.

The Glutenfreesociety.org has challenged the idea of a vaccine saying that they “have a hard time understanding why [they] need a vaccine for a disease that is completely controlled through diet modification.”

This issue of vaccine vs. diet prevention raises numerous issues regarding not only the continuation of the profitable gluten-free market, but also the availability, cost and social exclusion of celiac sufferers that could be avoided if a vaccine was to be released to consumers.

Impacts of over-promotion of the gluten-free diet

For every 1 in a 100 Australians who suffers from celiac disease, the number of Australians eating a gluten-free diet is much higher.  Arguably this might be attributed to over-promotion of the health benefits of a gluten-free diet, whilst failing to study the importance of gluten in a diet of someone that can digest it.

The growth of the gluten-free market has included promotion of some alleged claims to eating gluten-free that helps “weight loss” and “an increase in energy levels” for those who do not have celiac disease. Many doctors argue that this over-promotion of a gluten-free diet has been deliberately confused with the message of avoiding over-processed foods.

Debatably, the over-promotion of gluten-free eating can also be considered to be downplaying the significant importance of a gluten-free diet in those that are celiac. As 80 per cent of Australian celiac sufferers are unaware of their disease, scientists argue that it is important that gluten-free eating ought not be depicted as a “healthier lifestyle” or a “fad diet.”

Gluten is plant-based protein and for many people, especially vegetarians, it is essential for a balanced diet. For a large majority of consumers, gluten is not a problem. However, the excessive marketing hype of some companies may be crossing into the situation of being misleading, deceptive or false.