Niche markets always make for an array of interesting business stories, especially when they are growing. And one that fits that bill right now is the gluten-free industry, catering to consumers who want or need products that don’t contain gluten, which according to the Mayo Clinic is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
I’ve been wanting to write about gluten-free story ideas for a while, and recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration obligingly provided a news peg in the form of new rules for using that label; this FDA press release says products with more than 20 parts of per million of gluten no longer make the cut. And this news release about a just-out market report says the global market is growing at more than 10 percent per year, and is expected to exceed $6 billion a year by 2018.
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (who knew?) says some 2 million people in the United States — about 1 in 133 — have celiac disease, which requires them to refrain from gluten — here’s a link to the entire primer on the physiology and treatment of the disease. The Celiac Disease Foundation also is a font of information about this condition, which is quite serious stuff. In fact, here’s a Raleigh News & Observer story about a man recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for selling fake gluten-free products.
So, since we’re going into a make-it-or-break it season for merchants, food purveyors and other restaurant/retail businesses, with lots of food-heavy holidays from Halloween and Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, it’s a good season to take a look at how companies from kiosks to Kellogg are meeting the demand for gluten-free goods.
Food makers and sellers: As mentioned, browse your supermarkets, talk with food distributors and grocers and check in with any food-processing companies on your beat. How are they adapting existing products — Kellogg started making gluten-free brown-rice Rice Krispies, for example — and how much effort, R&D, staffing, advertising and marketing they are devoting to the niche.
The same goes for restaurants, food trucks and other purveyors — how are they managing the trend? Here’s a really good round-up from Crain’s Cleveland Business about how companies and entrepreneurs are meeting gluten-free demand. Here’s a Nation’s Restaurant News article about meeting gluten-free requirements in eateries. And don’t forget the booze; here Bon Appetit takes a look at gluten-free beers “that actually taste good.”
New labels for old products: This one amuses me and could be presented as a big graphic; I’ve noted a number of products, from eggs to canned mushrooms, that never had nor will have gluten suddenly trying to cash in by slapping “Gluten-free!” labels on themselves. Again, it’s a good marketing, packaging or advertising story.
Health care: How are health care providers — for-profit and non-profit — leveraging the gluten-free and celiac populations? Are health systems near you opening digestive-care centers, or are clinics expanding this sort of practice? What about dieticians and nutritionists, and other consultants?
Agriculture: Here’s an article about research into gluten-free grains, and a millet-producing farm with a celiac clientele. Are any specialty growers near you targeting this niche with alternative crops?
I also wonder about gluten-free hospital meals. In fact as an aside if you cover health care systems from a financial standpoint, looking at food service within the organization might be an interesting take. Programs to control waste, to recycle food, to serve appropriate food for people with special dietary needs, to control costs and to serve healthier options to both inpatients and those frequenting the cafeteria are big-ticket items and probably would yield some colorful features or exposes about the amount of food ending up in hospital dumpsters daily.
Misc.: Like many trends and special interests, the gluten-free industry drives its share of conferences, expos and other gatherings. Here’s one list of upcoming events and you can probably Google more for your state. As always, peruse exhibitor and speaker lists to find local ties. The pet industry, from bloggers to Purina, is addressing the issue; here Purina debunks what it calls gluten-free myths about pet foods. You can probably check in with independent retailers near you to find local or regional suppliers of gluten-free pet products.
Some airlines offer gluten-free meals, and in fact with holiday travel coming up you might want to run a sidebar about meal options aloft, from vegan to celiac-friendly — and how much they will cost passengers who don’t pack their own. There is even concern in some quarters about gluten in pharmaceuticals; if you cover that industry you might check in on current practices and rules. And what about diet plans that offer ready-made meals — or personal chefs, or those DIY dinner-preparation studios — are they changing menus, and at what cost?