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MHHE005197The number of people who have actually been diagnosed with celiac disease—which means their bodies cannot process the gluten contained in wheat—or even have a more mild wheat sensitivity is actually quite low. But you would never know it from the extensive grocery store shelves, hosting nothing but products that brightly proclaim themselves “gluten free!” If so few people actually need to avoid it, why has the lack of gluten become such a popular marketing message?

Observers point to a few trends. First, if one member of the family has a wheat allergy, it is likely that everyone in that family will switch to a gluten-free diet. It is a lot easier for parents to prepare one meal for all the kids, rather than one wheat-free meal for a child with celiac disease and another meal for the siblings.

Second, consumers who lack all the information might simply believe that gluten-free means better for their health. The wealth of seemingly healthy products, including fruits and vegetables, that can be promoted as lacking in gluten likely add to this confusion. Many products that consumers perceive as healthy also proclaim wheatless status, such that a sort of virtuous cycle begins—in which healthy means gluten free which then means health, and so on. Such a cycle is hard to bring to a halt.

Third, some people might feel better when they avoid products with gluten, because often those products coincide with more processed food. That is, even if they are not allergic to wheat, consumers who switch from cupcakes to apples likely feel better overall.

Thus both manufacturers and retailers offer extensive, broad lines of wheat-free products. At Wegmans, the New York–based grocer, the challenge is finding enough room in the store to be able to provide items from big, national brands while still showcasing some of the local brands it has offered for years. For the bakery brand Udi’s, which was among the first to develop “edible” gluten-free bread, the shift in the market has meant a massive expansion of its distribution. Professional baseball stadiums turn to Udi’s for gluten-free hotdog buns; Dunkin’ Donuts orders wrapped, individual muffins and bagels.

Source: Stephanie Strom, “A Big Bet on Gluten-Free,” The New York Times, February 17, 2014