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Gluten-free eating is taking the world by storm. But it is not just all about gluten-free pasta, bread and biscuits. Exciting new opportunities are also emerging for fresh food, including starchy roots, vegetables and pulses. The new generation of gluten-free consumers is really not that difficult to cater for as it cares less about purity and more about choice and variety. For fresh food industry players, this means training their focus on foodservice, particularly in countries where packaged gluten-free food sales are already high.
Our health and wellness data show that global value sales of gluten-free packaged food soared by 75% over the 2008-2013 review period, reaching US$2.1 billion in 2013. In the past, the only people avoiding gluten were those individuals suffering from coeliac disease, an auto-immune condition in which the consumption of gluten causes the body to attack its own digestive tract.
Nowadays, however, a growing number of consumers are eschewing gluten because they believe that their bodies are sensitive to this cereal protein in some way. They attribute a wide variety of persistent symptoms to gluten sensitivity, such as persistent fatigue, skin rashes, weight gain, digestive complaints (including irritable bowel syndrome), poor memory and hormonal imbalances.
In essence, a branch of modern health and wellness philosophy which is continually gaining in popularity is that any unexplained symptoms may be down to a food intolerance, and gluten is one of the first candidates for an experimental elimination diet.
For a number of fresh food categories, the gluten-free trend spells a veritable boon if fresh food producers play their cards right and are prepared to engage in targeted marketing and promotion. After all, gluten avoiders need to replace the wheat, rye and oat-based carbohydrate staples. On top of that, fresh foods are usually significantly cheaper than specialist packaged food products like gluten-free bread and pasta.
The potato is a prime candidate for replacing wheat-based dietary staples such as pasta, followed by other starchy roots like sweet potatoes and cassava. The latter, in particular, remains severely neglected outside the tropics where it is grown. The gluten-free trend, which is currently rampant in Western Europe and North America, may finally provide the required leverage to launch cassava onto restaurant menus and kitchen dining tables. The same goes for the sweet potato, of which very little is currently consumed across Europe.
Vegetables also have the potential to benefit. Weight-conscious gluten avoiders, in particular, are partial to replacing the carbohydrate part of a meal with vegetables, especially dense-textured types like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and other brassicas. Maize is also very well suited to this purpose and its gluten-free virtues may finally secure it a more habitual slot in European lunches and dinners. At present, Western European fresh maize volume sales are less than half those achieved in North America, and in Eastern Europe they reach only around one-third of those in the Western half of the continent.
Pulses are another likely beneficiary of the gluten-free craze. Loaded with complex carbohydrates, fibre and, fortuitously, also protein – a nutrient very much en vogue right now – they tick all the right boxes. Consumption in many Western European countries is lamentably low, despite the fact that meals based on beans, lentils and peas are widely recommended by doctors and nutritionists for the maintenance of an optimum blood sugar balance. This means that pulses are not only a top-notch food for diabetics but also for anyone concerned with weight management.
Historically, foodservice has been reluctant to touch gluten-free because it is very difficult for restaurant kitchens to eliminate the possibility of accidental cross-contamination. These days, however, trace amounts of gluten in “gluten-free” dishes do not pose an actual health risk to the vast majority of gluten avoiders (as long as they are not coeliacs), and so there is no need for foodservice establishments to brandish a 100% gluten-free guarantee.
To create a gluten-free menu item, it is usually sufficient not to employ any gluten-containing ingredients, such as wheat flour, in the preparation of a dish. Indeed, many consumers who profess to ascribe to a gluten-free lifestyle are, in fact, consuming a low-gluten diet rather than a no-gluten diet. On special occasions, for example, they may still permit themselves some gluten-containing food items, such as a slice of birthday cake.
Soon enough, it will be imperative for any urban restaurant to offer a range of gluten-free choices. Tossing a few vegetables and cheese onto a frozen gluten-free pizza base or assembling a slab of steak with chips and a few salad leaves just does not cut it in an age when most groups of diners will have one gluten avoider among them who, more likely than not, expects a full dining experience, which means being able to choose from several options, including a couple of vegetarian meals. The humble, slightly embarrassed glance at the waiter, accompanied by the sheepish question, “Do you have anything I can eat?” is a thing of the past.
This spring, the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) started to actively target foodservice players, prompting them to integrate potatoes into their menus in order to amplify their range of gluten-free offerings. To facilitate the task, the industry body has duly created a web page dedicated to gluten-free recipes suitable for foodservice, including entrées like Idaho Potato and Mushroom Lasagna, Cilantro, Lime Chicken & Idaho Potatoes, as well as interesting side dishes such as Cinnamon Coconut Potato Chips and Buffalo Potatoes, ready to step into the breach when something more exciting than plain fries is required.
While potatoes are a mainstay across North America and Europe, and certainly make for a splendid and versatile gluten-free menu component, foodservice ought to capitalise on it, being a key forum for introducing novel culinary delights to consumers. And seeing as those scouting for gluten-free menu options tend to be far more adventurous – out of sheer necessity! – than the average diner, this group makes the most excellent target for novel offerings incorporating, for instance, cassava, sweet potatoes and a wealth of pulses.
The most fertile markets for promoting fresh foods as gluten-free, both to consumers and foodservice operators, are clearly those where sales of gluten-free packaged food products are highest.
According to our health and wellness data, North America and Western Europe claim three-quarters of the global gluten-free packaged food market. The US, Italy and Germany occupy the top three positions (by total value sales), followed by Russia, the UK, Australia, Brazil, Sweden and France. Turkey emerged as the fastest growing market over the review period, followed by Venezuela, Israel and New Zealand.