Gluten-free gains ground

Gluten-free products continue to gain ground in the snack food aisle, but drug chains have been slow to bring in these increasingly popular products.

About 3 million Americans suffer from Celiac disease, and the prevalence of the disease is on the rise. May has been designated Celiac Awareness Month, and as awareness has increased, more consumers are being diagnosed with the condition. Many consumers who don’t have sensitivity are opting for gluten-free products because they think they are healthier.

Sales of gluten-free products increased about 74% from 2004 to 2009, according to the Nielsen Co., and are projected to grow from 15% to 25% per year over the next several years. Packaged Facts projected that gluten-free product sales will reach $2.6 billion by 2012.

Companies that produce gluten-free products said the gluten-free portion of their business is growing significantly. Barbara’s Bakery, which makes gluten-free treats, estimated gluten-free product sales are up 30%. At Natural Foods, sales of its gluten-free snacks surged nearly 74% from 2004 to 2009.

Natural Foods recently introduced gluten-free curls, puffs, baked crisps and multigrains in single-serve bags to fill a niche for gluten-free products in snack-on-the-go sizes, according to Christine Brown, Natural Snacks marketing manager. “We wanted to get into schools with the products and also meet the needs of consumers who wanted to bring these snacks in their lunch or eat them on the go,” she said.

Even mainstream snack and cereal manufacturers are positioning their products as gluten-free. General Mills reformulated rice Chex to be gluten free, Blue Diamond is marketing its new Nut Thins as a gluten-free product and Quaker is touting the gluten-free aspect of its rice cakes.

Packaged Facts data indicated that supermarkets account for 30% of gluten-free product sales. Drug stores are carrying more products — CVS, for example, stocks Lundberg Family Farms rice chips in two flavors — but have no designated section for the category.

“Drug stores have been a bit slower to add gluten-free sections than grocery stores,” said Todd Kluger, VP marketing for Lundberg Family Farms. Kluger said that for retailers a special section isn’t necessary. “They can place gluten-free versions of food on the shelf next to products containing gluten. It’s all about helping a gluten-free consumer have as much choice as possible.”

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