The gluten-free industry must improve availability, quality and cost of products in light of a fourfold increase in UK celiac diagnosis over the past two decades, says the CEO of Coeliac UK.
Research conducted by the University of Nottingham and funded by Coeliac UK found that the rate of diagnosis for celiac disease was up to 24%; significantly higher than earlier estimates of 10-15% from the National Institute of Health & Care Excellence (NICE). Published in the American Journal of Gastroenology , figures were drawn from diagnoses made between 1990 and 2011. However, the prevalence of celiacs in the UK remains largely unchanged, with the disease affecting 1 in 100.
Speaking to BakeryandSnacks.com, Sarah Sleet, CEO of Coeliac UK said the increase in diagnosis was of great significance to the gluten-free industry but added that manufacturers needed to step up in three areas - availability, quality and cost.
“The gluten-free market in the UK has certainly improved significantly over the last five years or more. There have been more entrants coming into the market, some mainstream brands coming in, and that of course is very good because it’s driving competition and innovation, but there’s still more to do,” she said.
Convenience, budget stores barely stock gluten-free
Sleet said manufacturers needed to do a lot more to make gluten-free products available for consumers.
“When you consider core ranges of breads and flours, what we’ve seen is that larger supermarkets are offering a pretty good range but the problem is they do tend to just be in those larger supermarkets which are out of town. What we know is that convenience stores and budget stores have virtually none, or very, very limited availability.”
Sleet said the celiac community didn’t have huge demands, but simply wanted a core range of staples – products like bread, rolls and pasta – available in stores across the UK irrespective of their size.
Asked if celiacs wanted gluten-free to remain in specialized in ‘free-from’ areas or integrated into regular bakery aisles, she said expectations varied. “There’s not a simple answer to be honest. Some people like the free-from because they can go straight there and it’s easy to spot. On the other hand, some people are more than happy to see it normalized and mixed in with everything else.”
However, she added that what was a frustration to the celiac community was when retailers kept changing where they stocked gluten-free. “I can understand they’re trying different strategies, but it’s very irritating for shoppers,” she said.
Food marketing expert, Professor Richard George, previously told this site that gluten-free had a better future in free-from sections as there were “riches in niches” , but Leatherhead’s business innovation manager Steve Osborn disagreed saying mainstream presence would open up the market better.
Sleet also said that stocking of gluten-free bakery products needed to be more reliable. “It’s far more likely the gluten-free shelf is empty. It’s all to do with stocking arrangements – gluten-free is not getting the priority it should.”
Coeliac UK has launched a ‘Gluten-free Guarantee’ awareness week (12-18 May) in the UK calling on supermarkets to stock a minimum of eight core gluten-free foods.
Better quality for lower prices
In addition, Sleet said industry needed to continue to improve the quality of gluten-free bakery products.
“It’s moved on hugely in breads with the introduction of fresh gluten-free breads, but what we’re now looking for is continuing improvements in terms of the quality, the range and type of bread available,” she said. She said efforts to, for example, reduce the fat levels in gluten-free products were welcomed.
Sleet said another frustration among celiacs was the premium price of gluten-free. Coeliac UK research indicated that, on average, gluten-free bakery products remained three to four times more expensive than gluten equivalent products.
“That’s a big differential that we’d like to see come down… Cost is still a major issue,” she said.
The future for gluten-free?
Ingredients supplier Ulrick & Short previously told this site that in-store bakeries held huge potential for gluten-free , a point that Sleet agreed on.
She said concerns over cross-contamination should not be cause to immediately rule out the idea of introducing gluten-free production to in-store bakeries.
“If you can produce a pizza out of a Domino kitchen, why not at in-store bakeries?” she asked. She said Coeliac UK had done plenty of research over the last few years into how to product safe, gluten-free alongside regular products.
Research has covered airborne flour contamination, for example, she explained. “It’s about the time of production, though. For example, if you clean down at the end of the night and make the gluten-free batch first thing in the morning the contamination risk is eliminated. Or you can have barriers between gluten and gluten-free preparation areas,” she said.
“With some sensible, easy-to-implement practices within a commercial kitchen, it is possible to make gluten-free products as well as regular products,” she added.