The Gluten-Free Niche

5 Sep

GlutenTwo years ago, my friend told me she couldn’t eat bread or drink beer, but that corn-tortilla-wrapped tacos were just fine. I did my best not to look at her like she was crazy.

Then last year I met a coworker with a similar ailment, and then just this summer, a new flatmate. That trend is telling, and apparently in-sync with the growing trend in diagnosis of “Gluten Intolerance” throughout the United States. As with any ailment, increasing prevalence or diagnosis of previously inexplicable symptoms leads to new business opportunities for those willing to customize their service and products to cater to the afflicted.

In July, The New York Times wrote about Risotteria, a descriptively-named restaurant in Greenwich Village with a menu that caters to the needs of the gluten intolerant (“For the Gluten-Averse, a Menu That Works“). The success of that restaurant would seem to be a harbinger of opportunity for restaurants and food-product manufacturers looking for a new niche audience to target. Indeed, many producers have already started to move to the scene.

It has become a popular dietary villain. Gluten-free foods are popping up on grocery-store shelves and restaurant menus, including those of national chains like P. F. Chang’s and Outback Steakhouse.

The diagnosis of Celiac’s Disease (the scientific name), an autoimmune disorder wherein sufferers have an adverse reaction to Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley (read: bread and other baked goods, beer, and a whole host of things that use wheat flour as a thickening agent) is on the rise in the United States. The New York Times wrote in May about this trend, comparing it to the similar rise in lactose-intolerance in previous times (“Jury Is Still Out on Gluten, the Latest Dietary Villain“)

The prevalence in North America was previously estimated at about 1 in 3,000, but several studies published in the last three years indicate that it is closer to 1 in 100 — and 1 in 22 for those with risk factors like having an immediate relative with celiac disease.

Two or three restaurants and a few packaged foods, however, would seem to barely touch the surface of the trend that could lie ahead. Wrong Diagnosis puts the disease’s prevalence rate at 1 in 250 Americans, and according to the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, prevalence among otherwise healthy adults may be as high as 1 in 133.

Businesses can cater to the gluten intolerant through a variety of means. For the majority of the restaurants in the world, the option will be as simple as ensuring one or two items are suitable for those with Celiac’s Disease, and labeling them appropriately in the same way vegetarian options often are. In places where populations where disproportionately many “alternative” or “healthy” diners reside, such as San Francisco and Chicago, or where a particularly aggressive diagnoser has a clinic, there is likely a large enough customer base to support a restaurant dedicated to gluten-free items. The place to start would be to contact local support groups and physician specialists to get a better feel for the size of the opportunity.

And best of all, especially for the friends of the gluten-intolerant, it turns out that the food can be quite tasty. I ate at Risotteria while in New York last year, and found my shimp, pepper, and spinach risotto to be excellent. The gluten-free beer made from sorghum, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.

One Response to “The Gluten-Free Niche”

  1. Jackson September 5, 2007 at 1:02 pm #

    You should try New Grist. We found it at the World Beer Fest last year and I was impressed. It’s very light, but pretty tasty.

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