Low-FODMAP Diet: Could it Rival Gluten-free or Lactose-free Foods?

Food intolerance is gaining traction globally as an increasing number of consumers perceive a diet free from gluten or lactose to be a healthier alternative. In fact, gluten- and lactose-free foods grew by US$1.7 billion over 2008-2013, nearly 2% of total health and wellness growth over this period. While the largest retail sales stem from Western Europe and North America, despite Australasia’s small retail size, the region leads global per capita retail sales of gluten-free products by some US$3/capita and ranks second in lactose-free products behind North America. Australia, in particular, has always been at the forefront of gluten-free product development.

Recently, the low-FODMAP diet – which removes from the diet certain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in the gut – developed at Monash University in Australia has reached the mainstream consumer in Australia and Europe. While the diet was developed in 1999 with the rise of gluten-free and lactose-free foods, it has only just begun to gain traction in the mass market. The low-FODMAP diet resonates with many consumers because it removes a variety of foods from the diet and so it does not require the individual to adhere to a stringent no-gluten or -lactose diet.

Per Capita Spend on Gluten-free and Lactose-free Food in Australasia, North America and Western Europe, 2013

Source: Euromonitor International

What is FODMAP?

One of the main reasons many gluten- and lactose-reducers opt for a gluten- or lactose-free diet is because of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). According to the Department of Gastroenterology at Monash University, one in seven adults suffers from IBS. The term FODMAP itself is an acronym deriving from: fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. A mouthful in itself, the name uses a further acronym for ODMAPs, which are short chain carbohydrates (oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and related alcohols) that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. It is reported that most individuals have poor absorption of most of the FODMAP carbohydrates, which can lead to symptoms of IBS in some individuals. Recent research findings, including a study published in Nature Reviews in 2014, have found that a low-FODMAP diet can benefit IBS symptoms. Even though the prevalence of IBS is on the rise, there has not been a lot of development by the food industry of products specifically targeting this consumer group until now.

List of foods with FODMAPs is diverse

The hardest part of the diet for individuals to understand is the type of food containing FODMAPs –and it is somewhat more complicated than the more straightforward gluten and lactose. The list is diverse and includes the likes of cow’s milk, wheat pasta, apples, legumes/pulses and even onion, among many others. These foods would need to be swapped for milk alternatives, gluten-free pasta, carrots, tofu and oranges, for example. However, the main benefit of the low-FODMAP diet is that the individual does not have to follow a strict gluten- or lactose-free diet; instead, foods are ranked on the amount of FODMAP they contain. Therefore, the odd use of a food that contains some FODMAPs is permitted. This could resonate well with gluten-reducers, the main set of consumers driving the demand for gluten-free foods.

Potential for FODMAP-friendly packaged food… but first explain its name

The low-FODMAP diet is a clear opportunity for the food industry to catch onto this trend, in a similar way to those developing gluten-free and lactose-free ranges. A dietician – one of the original developers of the FODMAP diet – in Australia has claimed to develop the world’s first range of FODMAP foods and there is potential for other food manufacturers to develop FODMAP-friendly ready meals and snacks. Health and wellness snacks could be a potentially lucrative avenue as the category is set to see absolute growth of US$6.4 billion over 2013-2018. If a product were to benefit from promoting its advantages for followers of the low-FODMAP diet, it would not be the first time that this approach has been successful. For example, Greek yoghurt has benefited significantly from being linked to a high-protein diet, Chobani alone saw its sales rise by some US$1.7 billion over 2008-2013. The high-protein trend has helped boost other dairy products high in protein, such as Skyr, a Scandinavian product based on fromage frais and quark.

Nevertheless, as its name is based on a string of scientific words, in order to gain greater traction in the mass market, the diet needs a significant level of consumer education. Based on this alone, it is unlikely to witness in the near future the following that gluten-free and lactose-free diets have developed.