* Diet trends, medical needs fuel gluten-free food demand
* 2011 U.S. sales forecast to hit $1.68 billion by 2015
* Health advocates, celebrities, athletes boost awareness
By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES, Sept 28 Los Angeles voice actor
Nancy Truman landed a new role as a full-time gluten-free baker
after she tweaked her recipes to replace the wheat that was
making her feel miserable.
Truman is among the estimated 18 million people in the
United States who are sensitive to gluten -- a hard-to-digest
protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
Another 3 million-plus Americans are thought to have celiac
disease, a potentially life-threatening autoimmune disorder
that is treated by eliminating dietary gluten.
In business, as in acting, good timing proved crucial for
Sales of gluten-free products have been booming despite the
weak U.S. economy. Health advocates and gluten-free celebrities
such as 2011 U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic, Chelsea Clinton
and TV host Elisabeth Hasselbeck have helped drive demand by
raising awareness about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Truman also had the good luck of being a friend and
neighbor to Waylynn Lucas, one of Los Angeles' most celebrated
pastry chefs, who is a fan of her gluten-free goodies.
The two now are partners in (fonuts), a new coffee shop
that sells baked, not fried, doughnuts. Gluten-free options
account for half of sales at (fonuts).
Lucas said customers are either avoiding gluten themselves
or "have a friend, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a cousin, a
father, a mother, a whatever, who is gluten intolerant."
"When they see it can be delicious and a little more
healthful, they're really turned on," Truman said.
Gluten is everywhere. It is in baked goods, pasta and beer,
as well as some unexpected items, such as McDonald's (MCD.N)
french fries, lunch meat, lipstick and some medicines.
Euromonitor International forecasts 2011 gluten-free sales
of $1.31 billion in the United States and $2.67 billion
worldwide. Sales have more than doubled since 2005 and are
expected to hit $1.68 billion in the United States and $3.38
billion globally in 2015.
"Consumers do feel some sort of reward when they eat
gluten-free products. They don't feel bloated. They don't have
belly aches. This usually encourages them to repeat the
purchase," said Ewa Hudson, Euromonitor International's head of
health and wellness research.
Europe is ahead of the United States when it comes to
celiac disease testing and awareness. Italy, for example, helps
people with celiac disease pay for the additional cost of
But big U.S. companies are jumping into the fray.
General Mills Inc (GIS.N) is a leader, having reformulated
some Chex breakfast cereals, Betty Crocker cake and brownie
mixes and Bisquick pancake mix to remove gluten.
Anheuser Busch Inbev SA (ABI.BR) sells a gluten-free beer
called Redbridge, which is sold in many mainstream
P.F. Chang's China Bistro Inc PFCB.O for years has had a
gluten-free menu and Subway, the popular sandwich chain, is
testing gluten-free bread and brownies in Texas and Oregon.
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey and actress Gwyneth Paltrow have
talked about avoiding gluten as part of detox diets, comments
that prompted critics to dub gluten-free the diet du jour.
Trend chasers who have no medical reason to be on a
gluten-free diet account for more than half of the daily
consumption of gluten-free products, said Alessio Fasano,
medical director at the University of Maryland Center for
Top-notch professional athletes are the only other people
who get some measurable benefit from cutting out gluten without
a doctor's orders, he said. Eliminating dietary gluten appears
to free up energy that otherwise would be used to break down
the tough-to-digest protein, said Fasano, who joked that
athletes use the diet as a "legal performance enhancer."
Still, he does not mind that fads are boosting sales.
"If anything, it's good for the market" because the extra
customers should help improve quality and lower cost, he said.
Interest from big retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc
(WMT.N) also should help bring down gluten-free product prices,
which run 2 percent to 3 percent higher than similar items
containing gluten, said Alice Bast, founder of the National
Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
Consumers have been preoccupied with food sensitivity for
some time (remember lactose intolerance?) and there is growing
interest in foods that support digestive and overall health,
said Tamara Barnett, ethnographic research manager at the
Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm. Gluten-free
products overlap those trends, she said.
Better-tasting products also help.
"They went from being sawdust to being really good," said
"Living Gluten-Free for Dummies" author Danna Korn.
Shauna James Ahern was diagnosed with celiac disease in
2005 and recommends focusing on readily available and naturally
gluten-free foods such as fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat.
The cookbook author and "Gluten-Free Girl" blogger, says
the category has staying power and suspects she knows why
people who do not have a medical reason for going gluten-free
feel better when they do.
"They're eating whole foods for the first time in their
lives," she says.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; editing by Andre Grenon)