I think it’s safe to say that the words “gluten-free” have become a common household term. At a minimum, I think it’s captured everyone’s attention, even just for a fleeting moment, and made them contemplate, “Should I too be gluten-free…what’s the problem with gluten anyway?” As for food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants, they would be crazy not to take notice of this rapidly growing market. Mintel Data reports that new product launches claiming “gluten-free” rose from 600 in 2007 to 1600 in 2011. Packaged Facts, a provider of consumer market research, reports that the GF market rose to an unexpected $4.2 billion in 2012 and is expected to reach $6.6 billion in 2017.
As a seven-year veteran of gluten-free living, I find it delightful that my food and dining out options have increased substantially and for that I am grateful. The problem we face though as gluten-free consumers is the lack of knowledge these companies possess concerning our health and dining needs. In my opinion, if you are going to enter a market, do it right. Understand the needs of the consumer…which means doing your research. Gluten-free is NOT A FAD. It’s a challenging way of life for many of us who absolutely cannot tolerate even the slightest bit of gluten. A research study report, Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2005, indicates that only 43.6% of the celiac patients studied, even after strict adherence to a gluten-free diet, reported full recovery of their intestinal damage. This means that over 50% did not get better after removing gluten. Why? This is only speculation but from what I’ve researched, I have concluded it’s due to a number of reasons and I’ve listed a few possibilities below:
1) The patient does not have a full understanding of all the places gluten can hide such as soy sauce, seasonings, marinades, body products and many prepared canned and boxed soups. They then can get unknowingly “glutened” and continue to suffer with initially undetected inflammation of the intestine.
2) The patient relies on a manufacturer’s claim that products are “gluten-free” when in fact the company has not taken the proper procedure to make sure they fall within the gluten-free guidelines which is currently defined as under 20 parts per million (ppm). One particular vendor of supposed “gluten-free” food was recently sued for misrepresentation. See the article here: Durham man who sold fake gluten-free bread gets 11 years in prison Clearly some companies are not taking this seriously. As a person who is NCGS (Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive), I am very sensitive and pay close attention to how products are labeled. I chose to buy products that have an official GF certification seal. There are currently three:
A) Gluten-Free Certification Organization (Gluten Intolerance Group of North America) – less than 10ppm gluten
B) Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) Seal of Recognition – Less than 5ppm gluten
C) National Foundation for Celiac Awareness – Less or equal to 10ppm gluten
If a product you are interested in buying does not have an official GF certification seal as seen above, my recommendation is to contact the company, inquire about their gluten-free policies and procedures and then ask for a report of the “ppm reading” for the particular product you are interested in buying. If they cannot provide this information, I would suggest not taking a risk on that particular product.
3) The patient blindly trusts the GF policies and procedures of a restaurateur offering gluten-free options on their menu. Even restaurants such as PF Chang’s, which has taken great strides to protect the GF community by serving gluten-free food on a unique plate (a round plate with the PF Chang logo imprinted on it), cannot guarantee against mistakes such as accidental cross contamination or a plate with gluten ingredients being delivered to the wrong table. This recently happened to me at a PF Chang’s restaurant in Pasadena, California. The fact is that we, as consumers, always need to take full responsibility for our own safety. I will do a full blog post in the near future on dining out GF safely so please watch for it.
4) The patient does not fully understand their full spectrum of food sensitivities. This study by the British Society for Immunology indicates that around 50% of patients with celiac disease were found to be sensitive to dairy (cow’s milk) as well. The protein molecule of gluten and dairy are very similar in structure and it can be easy for the body to react similarly to each when in a heightened state of auto-immune response.
5) The patient does not fully understand how to facilitate healing in the gut. All people with gluten sensitivity (celiac disease included) have intestinal permeability (AKA leaky gut). Removing gluten from one’s diet is not enough to heal leaky gut. It is only the beginning. Healing the intestine requires an intense protocol and a very clean, nutrient dense diet. Healing intestinal permeability can begin to help minimize the multiple food sensitivities that can be contributing to the continued auto-immune response in the body.
As gluten-free consumers have repeatedly negative experiences with products and/or restaurants and continue to be sick, the GF market at some point will inevitability begin to decline in direct correlation with our declining trust. So what can a restaurant and food manufacturer do to adequately meet the needs of the expanding GF market? For starters, pay attention to organizations such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) of North America who are working hard to serve GF consumers. GIG currently manages the Gluten-Free Certification Organization program (the GF seal you see on many GF products), the Gluten-Free Food Service program and various support group branches throughout the U.S. GIG will offer a free Webinar titled Understanding the Gluten Free Customer this Thursday at 11am PST. Registration is available here.
Another step companies can take is to truly listen to the market. Ask questions and treat gluten-free consumers/diners with respect and dignity. No eye rolling at restaurants, please, when we ask 10 times if it’s the correct dish. We do this because we trusted in the past and ended up sick. We are the ones that end up paying the price with our health for restaurant and manufacturer mistakes and negligence.
Do me a favor and pass this info along to any GF food manufacturer or restaurateur that you feel could benefit. As gluten-free consumers, we have to raise our concerns so they are heard and acted upon. Remember. the phrase..”the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Let’s continue our initiative to make this world a safer place for us to do what’s essential to our existence…eat.