Is gluten-free the next big food opportunity?

Should wholesalers be doing more to capitalise on the gluten-free trend? Elit Rowland investigates.

There’s no shortage of food fads to keep foodservice and retail outlets – and the wholesalers that supply them – on their toes. But is the gluten-free trend one that will help to drive sales or end up just gathering dust? 


What is gluten?

Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It can cause health problems in those with coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and to those with wheat allergies.

Coeliac disease is a genetic disorder that affects the small intestine. It affects people of all ages, from middle infancy onwards.


If the global market is anything to go on, the answer is that it will grow sales and fast. Global retail sales of products made specifically to be gluten-free have nearly doubled since 2007 to US$1.3bn last year. 

Here in the UK, the gluten-free market is worth in excess of £355m and is forecast to hit £519m by 2016. There are 100 Facebook groups containing the term ‘gluten-free’ in the title, including a dating website for ‘gluten-free singles’ and even gluten-free products for pets.

With the help of celebrity endorsements from the likes of Andy Murray and Victoria Beckham, gluten-free has become the latest must-have item on every restaurant menu and retailer’s shelf.

One foodservice specialist already with its finger on the gluten-free pulse is JJ Food Service, which is about to launch an own-label range to help its customers cater for the gluten-free trend. 

Managing director Mustafa Kiamil said: “Gluten-free foods have been big in the US for a few years. It’s only just starting to hit the UK now, but it’s hit hard.”

In November, JJ, which supplies cafés, restaurants and pubs, is rolling out a gluten-free chip, made with sunflower oil and developed to contain no trans-fatty acids. “It’s a significant investment on our part, but it will help our customers to appeal to a wider range of health-conscious consumers,” said JJ chief product officer Ali Guvemli.

The group plans to launch more gluten-free variants over the coming months, including flour, pizza bases and other key bakery items. For the first time, JJ has now included gluten-free as a heading in the index of its new product guide.

Five gluten-free facts
  1. 10% of people are gluten-intolerant or are avoiding gluten as part of a lifestyle change.
  2. 78% believe catering outlets aren’t doing enough for people with coeliac disease
  3. 36% of people would be willing to pay more to buy a gluten-free product
  4. 73% would be guided by the needs of a gluten-intolerant friend on where to eat
  5. 31.5% of consumers have bought a gluten-free product, up 17% from 2012

Source: An independent survey of 200 consumers from across the UK for Swedish dessert maker Almondy

Other major wholesalers have been stepping up their gluten-free activity too. Earlier this year, Musgrave Wholesale announced the launch of a gluten-free range aimed specifically at nursing homes. Just last month, ­Bidvest 3663 introduced more gluten-free options as part of its Christmas range aimed at health-conscious consumers as well as those with allergies.

“Five years ago people didn’t even know about gluten-free,  but it is becoming much more important – it’s like vegetarian options,” said Bidvest 3663’s campaign and activation marketing manager Gail Bridgeman. 

And when you supply restaurants and pubs, the opportunity gained or lost could be bigger than you think. 

“If one person in a Christmas party requires gluten-free and you don’t have that option on the menu, then you lose the whole party, not just one person,” Bridgeman said.

The growth in demand for gluten-free has not just been driven by the 1% of Brits that suffer from coeliac disease – a disorder of the small intestine that causes gluten sensitivity or allergy. 

“It’s the other 10% that actively avoid or limit their consumption of gluten for health and lifestyle reasons,” said Andrew Ely, managing director of Swedish gluten-free dessert maker Almondy. “In particular, it’s associated with improving digestion, weight loss and enhancing the condition of skin.” 

The UK restaurant scene still has a long way to go to fulfil gluten-free requirements, according to ­Almondy, which found 78% of consumers think catering outlets are not doing enough to support customers with gluten-intolerance. Interestingly, a further 36% of consumers said that they would pay more to have gluten-free.

But some wholesalers don’t even have gluten-free on their radar. One wholesaler told Better Wholesaling that while it caters for “thousands” of foodservice and retail customers, it doesn’t carry any gluten-free lines at all.

Some nutritional experts have also questioned its worth, criticising gluten-free lines for having less nutritional value than their gluten-containing counterparts. Others have criticised manufacturers for capitalising on the trend by labelling products gluten-free when they didn’t contain any to start with. 

In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, US sales of products labelled gluten-free – whether or not they ever contained gluten – have doubled to US$23bn in the past year, suggesting that the market is still going strong. While it may have hit its peak, gluten-free is not a trend that’s going to disappear in a hurry. 

For wholesalers in the UK, gluten-free is still relatively young – and there’s time for operators to capitalise on the potential explosion of gluten-free products on home ground.

Add to that the change in food labelling legislation coming in December, which will require food manufacturers and wholesalers to list any of 14 additional allergens if they are used as ingredients in a dish, and gluten-free products are no longer just a trend. The visibility of gluten as an ingredient in food will become a legal requirement.

Working with the right suppliers will be critical in helping businesses to comply with the law as well as changing consumer trends. 

JJ Food Service’s Ali Guvemli said: “Some of our manufacturers have been slow to adapt to changing legislation, so we’ve stopped working with them ­altogether.” 

Click next to see the new gluten-free products


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