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US Appetite Grows for Gluten-Free Foods

  • June Soh

NORFOLK, Virginia — The aroma of freshly-baked cookies fills Lucy's bakery in Norfolk, Virginia. While they look like the typical sweets you'd find in grocery stores, these treats are anything but ordinary.

“Especially special because I don’t use typical ingredients," says Lucy Gibney, an emergency room physician who founded the company. "Most cookies are made from wheat flour, butter, eggs, and none of those are in our recipes.”

Nor do any of Lucy’s cookies contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, which many people are sensitive to.

“I made cookies with these recipes at home for my son who has food allergies and can’t eat gluten, milk or egg, peanuts and tree nuts," Gibney says.

What began as tasty recipes for her son developed, in four years, into a company that expects to earn $5 million in revenue this year. At the recent Fancy Food Show in Washington, Lucy’s booth drew steady foot traffic.

“I liked what I saw on her Website," says Marilyn Klemm, who owns retail stores in New Hampshire, and is a potential buyer. "I thought I would come and try because my customers are asking more and more for gluten free.”

Down the aisle, Ted Vogelman, with Sticky Fingers Bakeries, a 25-year-old company in the state of Washington, offers gluten-free scones.

"We just started producing gluten free for this show," Vogelman says, "basically because of the request of our customers that we carry gluten free.”

Sticky Fingers and Lucy's are among the 300 companies presenting gluten free products here, says show official, Louise Krammer.

“That is way up. We saw it began a few years ago with maybe 20 to 40 companies with gluten free products," Krammer says. "And we are seeing a lot of better products now coming out, not only more but better.”

According to a recent market survey, sales of gluten-free products exceeded $6.2 billion in 2011.

Alessio Fasano, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research, is not surprised at the new interest in gluten-free diets.

“One of the reasons is that celiac disease, the most known and studied condition that is related to gluten is much more frequent than we believed before," Fasano says. "Besides celiac disease there is gluten sensitivity that seems to affect to many more people something like six percent of population or 18 million people.”

According to Fasano, gluten intolerance, which has a wide range of symptoms from headaches to infertility, was originally identified in Europeans, but it is now seen more often in North Africa, the Middle East and China.

Even people who can tolerate gluten sometimes choose not to eat it.

“I don’t have gluten intolerance, no," says Vinnie Pamula, a food show visitor. "But I feel better when I eat gluten free food sometimes.”

As more consumers like Pamula try to avoid gluten, while still enjoying tasty snacks and meals, more gluten free products are moving out from specialty stores and showing up on regular grocery shelves.