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It's game for gluton-free

Gluten-free is gaining mainstream status.

For every 100 people who walk into your grocery store, one of them has celiac disease. Add others with gluten sensitivities to wheat, barley, rye and oats, and those with allergies, and about one in every 10 Canadians is out there shopping for gluten-free foods to relieve symptoms that range from bloating, cramps, nausea, anaemia, irritability and depression.

Throw in family members and others who haven't been diagnosed with the intolerance, but are eating glutenfree anyway, and you have a market that Packaged Facts projects will exceed $5 billion in the U.S. by 2015.

"People with celiac disease have been the natural drivers of the gluten-free market," said Don Montuori, Packaged Facts' publisher. "However, there is evidence suggested that eliminating gluten from the diet may relieve autism in children and adult rheumatoid arthritis. Add to that the healthy aura some consumers have attached to gluten-free products and you create a demand for these foods and beverages that mainstream food manufacturers and retailers are increasingly happy to satisfy." Jim McCarthy, executive director of the Canadian Celiac Association, expects the growth of gluten-free products in Canada to rival that of the U.S. and maintain a 14% annual growth rate over the next five years.

Mainstream manufacturers and grocery stores realize that while glutenfree is a niche market, it's a big one, says McCarthy. Wal-Mart, Loblaw and Metro all have private-label gluten-free products. "It is very profitable for them and they are going to have a huge impact," he says. "When Metro introduced its Irresistibles line with items like mac-and-cheese, they were introducing them at the same price points, so suddenly you've addressed two things: they are available on mass and the customer is no longer paying up to 10 times the price of a regular product."

Francois Bouchard, president of the Country Grocer in Ottawa, says demand for gluten-free in his store is substantial, and so he carries a good assortment of gluten-free, especially in the bakery. "It's become more mainstream," he says. "It used to be for the person with celiac disease; now the whole family is eating that bread, so everyone is on the same loaf."

Other grocers are also beefing up their gluten-free sections. In Vancouver, Choices Markets has a dedicated rice bakery that supplies all eight of its stores, says Nicole Fetterly, nutrition operations manager. "We specialize in gluten-free food and knowledge and provide a service not only to the community of people with celiac disease, but also to those people who are trying to avoid gluten for other reasons."

McCarthy says that in 2008, 42% of those with celiac disease bought their foods from supermarkets and mass merchandisers; 37% from Wal-Mart and warehouse clubs; and 16% from health and natural food stores.

"A lot of people are recognizing that this is not a fad like the Atkins diet," says Shelly Case, a Regina-based registered dietitian and author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. Case says product selection is the most important factor for a gluten-free consumer, followed by price, convenience and good service. "This diet is here to stay and retailers that can get a cheaper gluten-free variety of popular products are going to have customers for life," she says.

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