Food stores step up their gluten-free offerings to keep up with demand
Supermarket shoppers can hardly go to their local stores these days without spotting the term “gluten free” on products from fresh to frozen, from deli to dairy. Once a rare find, gluten-free foods from mainstream and specialty companies are getting more shelf space and attention all the time.
Many regional supermarket chains and even national big-box retailers are capitalizing on the gluten-free trend, adding gluten-free sections and aisles, stocking “fresh” gluten-free baked goods, employing in-store dietitians—even advertising gluten-free products in weekly flyers and circulars.
The increase in celiac disease and gluten intolerance, combined with a general interest in the gluten-free diet, in recent years has resulted in a greater demand for gluten-free foods, better tasting products and—importantly—wider availability for consumers.
The gluten-free products market is estimated to grow about 10 percent annually through 2019, according to consultant Markets & Markets, with North America projected as the fastest-growing market in the world. A recent report from market research firm Mintel projects that worldwide sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will exceed $14.2 billion by 2017.
“Overall the gluten-free food market continues to thrive off those who must maintain a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, as well as those who perceive gluten-free foods to be healthier or more natural,” says Amanda Topper, a food analyst with Mintel. She believes the category has a “health halo,” expanding to those who do not need to eat gluten free for medical reasons. She expects the market will continue to grow in the near term, especially as U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations make it easier foconsumers to purchase gluten-free products and trust the manufacturers who make them.
Mintel’s research shows that all gluten-free food segments increased in the past year, though the snacks segment increased the most. The three largest areas based on sales are snacks (mainly due to a whopping 456 percent increase in potato chip sales over the past three years), meats and meat alternatives, and bread products and cereals.
Over the last decade, the gluten-free category has become extremely competitive due to new and innovative products, observes Janet Little, director of nutrition for Sprouts Farmers Market, a 190-store chain operating in the Western and Central United States. She cites the recent introduction of shelf-stable gluten-free bread as an example.
The level of competition among bread manufacturers—large and small—for shelf space is fierce, according to Scott Owen, the grocery merchandiser at Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets. He says that ultimately it’s not the brand name that dictates whether a product stays or goes—sales numbers dictate the fate of all products. Sprouts assesses the sales data of gluten-free products more frequently than other store categories because of continued improvements, product selection and consumer demand, says Little.
The battle for shoppers’ dollars isn’t just among gluten-free food manufacturers. Supermarkets are adopting initiatives that were largely unseen until a few years ago.
A new look for markets
Many shoppers are seeking out stores with stand-alone gluten-free sections, and food retailers of all sizes are filling the need. At Sprouts, every location has a dedicated area that contains only certified-gluten-free products. “This is an important differentiator for people with celiac disease because it allows them to have a simpler shopping experience by focusing on this one aisle rather than having to search throughout the store for various gluten-free products,” explains Little.
Publix, a major supermarket chain in the Southeast, has added gluten-free sections to nearly 70 percent of its 1,100 stores, says spokeswoman Maria Brous. Top-selling products there include snacks such as cookies and crackers and convenience items such as mac-and-cheese. North Carolina-based Food Lion recently remodeled 45 stores in its home state to include dedicated gluten-free areas.
Wegmans, a Mid-Atlantic supermarket chain, was one of the first to stock gluten-free items all together. In a typical store, gluten-free flours, mixes, breads, cereals, cookies, snacks, pasta and more fill several aisles and a freezer case in the Nature’s Market Place natural foods section.
Some stores, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Kroger, still intersperse gluten-free products throughout the store, for example stocking gluten-free cereal, pasta and baking mixes in the aisles that carry gluten-containing versions of those products. These and other supermarkets compile and update gluten-free product lists, accessible in stores and online. Meijer, with locations in Michigan, Indiana and three other states, even maintains a list of gluten-free over-the-counter vitamins, cold medications and analgesics.
At his family’s five-store chain of ShopRite supermarkets in southern New Jersey, the number of gluten-free products has doubled over the past few years, says Brett Ravitz, the vice president of merchandising, stressing the importance of heightened product awareness at his stores.
“When seasonally driven displays go up, we make an effort to include gluten-free options that will work for those living this lifestyle. That’s a big win,” Ravitz says. Like many markets, ShopRite is receptive to customer requests for new gluten-free products.
Buying packaged gluten-free meats and cheeses avoids potential cross-contamination at the deli slicer but can be more expensive. Several Acme Markets in suburban Philadelphia have teamed with a local cold-cuts purveyor, Dietz & Watson, to offer more than 20 meat and cheese varieties in a dedicated setting. The gluten-free products are sliced with separate equipment, and deli associates wear special blue gloves when handling gluten-free products.
None of the sliced deli meats and cheeses at Wegmans contain gluten ingredients, and a number of options at the hot-foods bar also omit gluten-containing ingredients. However Wegmans Nutritionist Trish Kazacos, R.D., cautions that there is a difference between “no gluten ingredients” and “gluten free” at the market. “We’ve analyzed the recipes and ingredient lists carefully, but we’re being honest about a risk of cross-contact in a supermarket setting,” Kazacos says.
“Suppose the Pizza area is next to the deli. It’s conceivable that some airborne particles of flour might settle on a slicer used for cold cuts. Or, in self-serve areas like the Fresh Food Bar, a bit of food that doesn’t belong could accidentally fall into or touch one of the ‘No Gluten Ingredients’ dishes.” She says that customers surveyed understood the difference between the two terms and encouraged the use of the “no gluten ingredients” option.
In-store dietitians and more
Some supermarkets are responding to customers’ dietary inquiries by hiring corporate and in-store dietitians and nutritionists. Their roles typically include providing guidance on food restrictions, reading food labels and organizing store tours.
ShopRite has dietitians in more than a third of its 250 supermarkets located throughout New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland—a number that continues to grow, says Santina Stankevich, a spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp., the retailer-owned cooperative that operates ShopRite.
In addition to hosting food allergy-themed store tours and two gluten-free vendor fairs each year, Ashley Cully, the dietitian at the Ravitz ShopRites in New Jersey, provides customers with free in-store nutrition counseling to help them accommodate their dietary restrictions. “The most common request I receive is for meal and snack ideas—especially for children in school,” she says.
Kazacos, the Wegmans nutritionist, has gluten sensitivity and has been living gluten free for seven years. In 2011 she began writing a gluten-free blog for the chain. Her monthly postings, which are now distributed to customers via email, often include links to coupons for gluten-free products.
Meijer’s team of five dietitians, assigned to the chain’s 200 Midwest stores by region, answer questions emailed by customers and update an online database of gluten-free resources.
In addition to providing access to dietitians, stores have other value-added offerings. PCC Natural Markets accommodates gluten-free shoppers in an impressive number of ways and was the first retailer to receive accreditation from the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG).
Each of PCC’s 10 locations has gluten-free shopping specialists along with Gluten-free Walk, Talk & Taste tours offered at no charge. An array of gluten-free cooking classes is part of the store’s PCC Cooks program.
Dorothy Lane Market hosts a monthly Gluten-Free Food Lovers’ Club at one of its Dayton, Ohio, stores and frequently posts recipes and new product arrivals on the group’s Facebook page. Sprouts stores host online educational events like Wellness Webinars. Three times a year the stores discount prices on products from leading gluten-free brands by 25 percent to 40 percent. Publix offers gluten-free cooking classes at its in-store Aprons Cooking Schools.
Better breads and baked goods
Sprouts’ Little has seen sales of gluten-free baking mixes declining nationally because companies are creating better tasting ready-made breads, muffins, cookies and cakes. One reason is the growth of “fresh” gluten-free baked goods. Traditionally grocers have sold gluten-free breads, muffins and the like out of the freezer case, where shelf life isn’t a short-term concern.
However, with the popularity of gluten-free foods, more retailers are moving toward a dual-placement model, stocking products in their bakery departments while maintaining the traditional placement in the frozen-food aisles, including shelf-stable varieties. Though they are sold at room temperature, most of the in-store bakery items are shipped frozen.
After testing the concept at selected Safeway and Target stores, Boulder Brands is rolling out an extension of its Udi’s Gluten Free brand called Florence Street Bakery that will be sold in the ambient bakery section of supermarkets. The line includes products such as seeded country bread, farmhouse white bread, chocolate cupcakes, vanilla cupcakes and chocolate chip sunflower cookies, all with different formulations than existing products.
“This is very exciting because people buy baked goods in the bakery,” remarked Boulder Brands Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Stephen B. Hughes during an investment conference last September. Hughes said the bakery loaf will be larger than typical gluten-free breads, addressing consumer concerns about the size of products currently available. “
Regional markets such as Wegmans, Giant Eagle and Jewel-Osco have begun stocking Goodbye Gluten’s line of shelf-stable gluten-free breads and wraps. The products, which are certified by the GIG’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization, are seeing wider distribution thanks to manufacturer Bimbo Bakeries USA. Bimbo is the largest bakery company in the United States, producing fresh baked goods from Sara Lee, Thomas’, Entenmann’s and Arnold, among others.
Whole Foods pioneered gluten-free baking for supermarkets when the company opened its Gluten Free Bakehouse in 2004. Based in Morrisville, North Carolina, the dedicated facility supplies Whole Foods stores in the United States and Canada with items like breads, cookies, muffins, biscuits, scones and pies, which are shipped and stored frozen.
Supermarkets are also partnering with local bake shops to sell gluten-free baked goods. Sprouts stores in Atlanta, for example, carry products made by the local all-gluten-free Dunwoody Bakery. Products from Sweet Ali’s Gluten Free Bakery in suburban Chicago can be found at area Whole Foods and Hy-Vee outposts, while about 100 H-E-B grocery stores throughout the Lone Star State carry baked goods from Taylor Made Gluten Free Bakery in Bryan, Texas.
Wegmans has taken that concept a step further. The chain recently partnered with a New Jersey gluten-free bakery, Get Fresh Bakehouse, to offer prepared cookies, cupcakes and brownies at all of its stores. In a twist, the bakery uses Wegmans’ private-label gluten-free baking mixes as part of its recipes.
Extensive product labeling
FDA regulations implemented last year allow products to be labeled gluten free if they test at less than 20 parts per million gluten and are either inherently gluten free or do not contain an ingredient made from a gluten-containing grain. Many supermarkets follow this standard when deciding which products to call out with “gluten-free” shelf tags or place in the gluten-free sections of their stores.
In 2001 Wegmans launched a series of Wellness Keys—circle icons that appear on the front packaging of store-brand products—and included a gluten-free category, according to corporate nutritionist Kazacos. She says that Wegmans’ Quality Assurance team, which regularly reviews ingredients to ensure that the products meet FDA guidelines, also maintains a list of gluten-free products that is posted at the chain’s website.
At Safeway stores the “SimpleNutrition” shelf tag program includes a gluten-free designation applicable to products identified by the manufacturer on the packaging.
Publix is starting to add a gluten-free mark to its private-label products using the FDA labeling requirement as a guideline, says spokeswoman Brous. She adds that gluten-reduced beers such as Omission and Estrella Damm Daura don’t have gluten-free shelf tags since under current government regulations beers that are derived from barley (a gluten-containing grain) cannot be labeled gluten free.
Despite these advances, shoppers shouldn’t abandon the time-honored practice of reading product labels. Ingredients can change without notice, shelf tags are subject to human error, and items can be incorrectly stocked in gluten-free sections. Some supermarkets are anxious to capitalize on the gluten-free boom but don’t pay as much attention to gluten-free products as needed.
National stores and big-box retailers
National stores including Wal-Mart and Target are making a push into the gluten-free market space, creating more options for consumers and competition for groceries and supermarkets.
Last year Target began selling 7-Grain and Mountain White breads made by Colorado’s Canyon Bakehouse at all of its U.S. stores. The gluten-free breads are stocked in the bakery department rather than the frozen section. In recent years Target has built up its gluten-free selections with items like frozen burritos and quesadillas from Boulder Brands’ Evol Foods label, Annie’s Naturals’ mac-and-cheese meals and Cherrybrook Kitchen baking mixes. The retailer’s own wellness brand, Simply Balanced, has gluten-free items such as sesame brown rice crackers and spaghetti.
Wal-Mart has expanded its private-label Great Value line with gluten-free cookies, pretzels, pasta meals and granola bars, many of them manufactured by Romanian company Sam Mills. All of the products are certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Program run by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Using distinguishable green product labels, the big-box retailer has also added gluten-free blueberry muffins, brownies and chocolate chip cookies to many in-store bakeries.
After testing a limited number of gluten-free products last summer, low-cost retailer ALDI made its exclusive LiveGfree brand a permanent addition in its nearly 1,300 stores in 32 states. The certified-gluten-free line features 17 items—from wraps, microwaveable stuffed sandwiches and pizza to cookies, baking mixes and chicken nuggets—that are produced by third-party manufacturers. “ALDI shoppers quickly embraced the great taste and affordable prices of LiveGfree products, with many requesting gluten-free products be made available in ALDI stores year round, which is exactly what we did,” said Chuck Youngstrom, president of ALDI. The LiveGfree line is priced up to 50 percent less than comparable products at national retail grocery stores, adds spokesman Andres Malo.
In an environment of thin profit margins and increased competition, supermarkets are striving to offer consumers a better shopping experience. With the need for gluten-free foods showing no signs of abating, shoppers are less likely than ever to see grocery shopping as a chore.
Many supermarkets maintain lists of their gluten-free products on their websites, updating them frequently due to the release of new items and ingredient changes. The lists include mainstream products and brands, specialty gluten-free items and store-brand products.Here’s where you can find them.
Dorothy Lane Market: dorothylane.com/Healthy/gf.pdf
Trader Joe’s: traderjoes.com/pdf/lists/list-gluten-free.pdf
Whole Foods Market: wholefoodsmarket.com/service/gluten-free-products-list
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