Imagine a world where bread, beer and pizza were totally off the menu.
For people with celiac disease -- an intolerance to the gluten found in wheat and some other grains -- it's no stretch of the imagination, as their affliction makes the act of eating a daily nightmare.
And although the world of business hasn't necessarily been against celiacs, it wasn't necessarily for them either. But now things seem to be changing with even giant-sized companies like
Whole Foods Market
and owner of Chili's restaurant chain
taking an interest and capturing more dollars from what is a hot niche market.
Celiac disease is a genetically transmitted disorder that gives those afflicted a toxic reaction to wheat, barley, rye and triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid; anything made using such ingredients, like flour-based cake or bread, cannot be eaten.
Incidence of the disease, which is generally accepted to affect about one in 133 people in the U.S. and Europe, is believed to have doubled over the last two decades according to some studies, although accurate measurement is tricky because it often goes undiagnosed.
Want more? Check out TheStreet.com TV video.TheStreet.com's Simon Constable serves Amy Quazza, who has celiac disease, her first beer in more than five years.
For Amy Quazza, chef instructor at New York City's
Institute of Culinary Education, it meant she had to give up her 10-year career as a baker in 2003. And like many sufferers, she only found out the root cause of her gastrointestinal problems as an adult, after she was well into her chosen career.
made from wheat at work made me very sick," says Quazza. But even when she quit life as a baker she still wasn't free from the problem. Outside pastries, there is also a lot of gluten hidden where you wouldn't expect it -- for instance, it's in soy sauce as modified food starch, she adds.
"You have to know to be vigilant. Asian sauces have a lot if wheat in them," Quazza says.
Although her affliction has made life difficult in the past, things are now heading in a better direction, she explains. Quazza notes that upscale organic food retailers like Whole Foods now often designate a gluten-free area and have more detailed labeling on food, as well as providing special diet shopping lists at the customer service desk of each store or via the firm's
The upscale market also boasts a
gluten-free bakehouse, which it opened three years ago with six dedicated staff members; it's added 20 additional employees since then.
The food-service industry as a whole is catching on quickly also.
"The biggest thing we do for people with food allergies and other dietary restrictions is that everything is made to order," says Chris Arnold, a spokesman for
Chipotle Mexican Grill
, "so customers have a remarkable amount of control." Likewise, casual dining venue Chili's offers an entirely gluten-free menu, according to a spokesman for the company.
Similarly, the prestigious
Culinary Institute of America has noted the celiac problem by introducing a nontraditional baking class.
"We've been really on making our students aware of health issues," says John Fischer, professor of table service at the CIA in Hyde Park, N.Y. The school also serves paying customers through its very own restaurant. "If people call ahead, we will provide them with gluten-free cake," Fischer adds.
The gluten-free trend is clearly growing, with the pace of new product development accelerating significantly. In 2006, 574 new gluten-free products were introduced across the U.S., which is up from 298 a year earlier and 69 in 2001, according to Whole Foods.
Labeling only goes so far, however, because it simply tells celiacs what they already know: Most foods are a no-go. For Quazza, for instance, that has meant no beer since 2001 when she found she had the disease. But that's about to change.
Crack One Open
Enter Anheuser-Busch, which has tackled the problem from the other end. Instead of producing the same beer and labeling it as gluten-free (something the firm has long done with Budweiser), it has formulated a new product,
Redbridge, using naturally gluten-free grain sorghum.
"It takes a little longer to brew than other beers," says Florian Kuplent, brewmaster for Redbridge. The technique also produces a heartier beer with a "hoppy and fruity" flavor, he adds.
A sampling of the brew by
staffers confirmed this description to be true, with most people giving the thumbs up, although a few found it too sweet.
Test marketing for the new brew started in mid-2006, but Anheuser-Busch began distributing it nationally last December. Although the firm won't reveal the sales volumes, it's clearly hitting the right spot.
"We surpassed our annual volume in May," says Bruce Eames, product manager for Redbridge, but refused to quantify more specifically. "It's really played well; I get countless calls from people who say it's the first beer they had in 10 years."