Is gluten-free the new skinny? As celebrities from Lady Gaga to Andy Murray and many everyday Americans eschew gluten, numerous food and beverage producers are touting their products’ gluten-free status or rolling out items sans the gluey protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Adult beverage producers are no exception.
The gluten-free opportunity is an interesting one. While approximately one in 133 Americans has celiac disease, a hypersensitivity to gluten that can damage the small intestine and cause myriad health issues, it’s estimated that many are undiagnosed, according to the National Institutes of Health and the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. In addition, as many as 10 percent of Americans are estimated to suffer from some form of gluten sensitivity. As understanding of these conditions has growth, more gluten-free products have emerged.
Gluten-free spirits and beers are increasing in number and visibility as marketers and also restaurant and retail operators seek another point of differentiation in an ever more-competitive marketplace. In 2012, two beers, a cider and a vodka came onto the market touting gluten-free attributes (Dogfish Head Tweason Ale, Widmer Brothers Omission, Michelob Ultra Light Cider and Vixen Vodka). Earlier this year, gluten-free Crater Lake Sweet Ginger Vodka arrived on the scene, and just last week Devotion Vodka added Wild Cherry and Coconut to its line of sugar- and gluten-free flavored vodkas. With the advent of craft brewers entering the gluten-free fray, the consumer media are highlighting gluten-free beers that “actually taste good.”
Restaurant operators certainly recognized their guests’ interest in gluten-free offerings, and not just on the plate. The incidence of gluten-free adult beverages on chain restaurant drink menus rose 102 percent in the first quarter of 2013 compared with the first quarter of 2012, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor database. “Skinny” rose 51 percent during the same time period.
What’s interesting about this trend is that it has evolved. Gluten-free started as an alternative for sufferers of celiac disease and other gluten issues. The term’s appeal has broadened, and now it highlights offerings that consumers simply perceive as being lighter and better for you. We anticipate more gluten-free adult beverages entering the marketplace this year, but also expect the tide may stem slightly as the role of gluten in the diets of those without a sensitivity is clarified and the benefits of gluten-free foods and beverages for nonsensitive consumers are better understood. Until then, the rash of new gluten-free adult beverages is worth exploring for both retailers and restaurant/bar operators.