Next month its DS-gluten free Tortellini Ready Meal will be launched in Sainsbury’s, said Emma Herring, the firm’s retail brand manager. That will be followed in November by a new gluten-free frozen pizza, the Bontà d’Italia Margarita Pizza, launched in ASDA.
“We are constantly looking to invest in new products to ensure that the gluten-free market continues to grow,” Herring told FoodManfacture.co.uk.
The sector’s rising popularity is reflected in its current value estimated at more than £130.7M and growing 15.7% year-on-year, said Herring, quoting figures from research group Kantar Worldpanel.
Jeremy Woods, md of free-from bakery Mrs Crimble’s, said: “Gluten-free food has reached a crossroads. Not only do the best free-from foods taste as good as mainstream foods, they are also starting to be seen as a lifestyle choice – in a similar way to organic or Fairtrade foods.”
Another growth driver is the rising number of cases of Coeliac disease - a genetic disorder requiring sufferers to adopt a life-long gluten-free diet About 125,000 Britons have been diagnosed with Coeliac disease while the total number of sufferers is 600,000, said Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK.
Also, wider diagnosis of the disease has further strengthened acceptance of gluten-free products among non-sufferers choosing gluten-free as a lifestyle choice.
Zoeb Bhujwalla, director of free-from bakery, American Muffin Company, said: “If there is a person suffering from celiac disease in a family, there will usually be one or two other members that will just join in instead of buying different products.”
"If the muffins are good quality and sold at a reasonable price, they won’t go buy something else, everybody in the family can just eat the [gluten-free] one.”
Growth depended on overturning the perception of gluten-free products as tasting terrible and expanding the range of products available, added Bhujwalla. But reforming products is proving a technical challenge that will take time to overcome. Gluten is difficult to replace and there are many combinations of ingredients that can be used in substitution.
“There are so many combinations. For instance for the recipe we are currently working on, we had to do 30 to 40 major trials, at least, to get the recipe right. Gluten- free production does not lend itself well to automated production,” said Bhujwalla.
Retailers have recognised growth in the sector and have given more shelf-space to gluten free products, he added.
“ASDA has been selling our Choc Macaroons in mainstream space – not on their free-from counter – and the increase in sales has been fantastic.
“The irony is that just as many of the largest food manufacturers are piling into the Free From market for the first time, Mrs Crimble’s is doing the opposite – and trying to move into mainstream space.
“Free From counters may continue to grow for a while yet but eventually we believe that customers will prefer to buy gluten free products next to ‘ordinary’ ones,’ said Woods.
Meanwhile, a Euromonitor International report published earlier this year confirmed gluten’s move from medical niche into the mainstream health and wellness food sector.
The category as achieved global sales growth of 11% per cent even in 2009; the trough of global recession, according to the research group.
In contrast health and wellness products achieved 3% growth over the 2004-2009 review period.