New dough balls please!" Squint your brains and envision the newly gluten-free dieter, Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic, masterfully return-serving a plate of bready starters in a Pizza Express: there you have the (slightly silly) metaphorical summation of another year in which the gluten-free sector aced it.

Or at least that’s what the soaring sales would suggest. The bread dodgers’ latest poster boy may balk as he digs deep into the £1.1m Centre Court prize haul to stock his freezer with gluten-free goods, amid complaints of high prices. New research by Kings College London found that gluten-free foods breads, rolls, cereals, pasta, flour, crackers, biscuits and pizza bases were 76% to 518% dearer than equivalent foods containing gluten. Despite tightened consumer spending, the gluten-free market still grew by around 30% over the last two years (Mintel, September 2011). How quickly might the sector have grown with prices equivalent to standard goods, you might wonder?

Qualitative research on gluten-free consumption by McCallum Layton (September 2011), based on in-store observations and at-home interviews, found that the high expense of products was shoppers’ single biggest complaint. Few saw a justification for the huge cost differential. High pricing has been cited as the main obstacle to trial for "healthy lifestylers" tennis stars aside. The missed opportunity is potentially huge (see panel, page 23).

"If I could sell a gluten-free loaf for the same price as a regular loaf, I’d be delighted, because 30-40% of people would switch to gluten-free bread for the potential health benefits," believes Paddy Cronin, managing director of United Central Bakeries (UCB), the UK’s biggest own-brand gluten-free bread producer and manufacturer of the Genius and Livwell brands. "We predict total household penetration in the free-from market at around 45%; bread is currently at 19%, so we haven’t touched the majority of the market."

That depends on getting lifestylers on board. "If gluten-free bakery products are going to become as mainstream as manufacturers would like them to be, they are going to have to find a way of bringing prices closer to standard products," states Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, editor of the Foodmatters gluten-free website and organiser of the Free From Food Awards.

So what can the industry do? Not much. Apart from battling high commodity prices, gluten-free bakers have to build a separate plant or employ costly safety measures to segregate products, as do ingredients firms. And the volumes of gluten-free loaves currently being produced pale next to the 20,000 loaves an hour produced on a regular bread plant.

Costly ingredients

While a tonne of wheat on the open market might cost £250, potato starch a key constituent of gluten-free products will cost four times that amount. The enzymes introduced into gums to give products structure, while used in small quantities, still cost thousands of pounds per kilogram. And availability of specialist ingredients is often scarce, but things are changing. Gums and enzymes important for gluten-free baking are increasingly developed using corn and maize instead of wheat.

"The large ingredients suppliers maybe didn’t look at gluten-free ingredients in the past, when it was a £2m market," says Cronin. "Now we’re buying in X-number of tonnes of ingredients, they’ve woken up to the fact that it’s a significant market by putting their R&D resource behind gluten-free."

It will take several years before the price gap is narrowed. "Prices are coming down, but they are still way higher than the mainstream," says David Jago, trends and innovations director at Mintel. "It’s still the biggest factor holding back the market."

Meanwhile, one group that will pay virtually anything because they have little choice is those with diagnosed allergies. And their numbers are growing fast: Coeliac UK attracted 14,500 new members in 2011. So why the surge? "There’s an area that is increasingly of interest to medics around gluten sensitivity. That is, people who don’t have any typical markers of coeliac disease antibodies or gut damage," explains Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK. "If those people stick to a gluten-free diet, they find they feel better. This isn’t a well-defined field yet, but medics are starting to say, ’Well, maybe there is something in this’, and they’re potentially advising gluten-free diets."

Supermarket competition

That trend is not missed by the supermarkets, which are embroiled in one-upmanship when it comes to gluten-free range reviews. "Because the supermarkets all do a range review every one to two years, you’ll find one somewhere in the market every two or three months," says Sleet. "They’re leapfrogging over each other, trying to step up the quality of the offering."

The supermarkets have wised up to free-from, reformulating everything from sausages to recognising naturally free-from products, such as chilled desserts, so that they can be communicated as such to shoppers. "Because gluten-free consumers are a close-knit community, if a retailer does a range review, it will see a major uplift because everybody will go to see what is there they’ll know the product quality is improved," says UCB’s Cronin.

The prize is ultra-loyal customers. "Our research, undertaken this summer with Asda shoppers, showed gluten- and wheat-free consumer spending is heavily based on trust," says Emma Herring, retail brand manager at gluten-free firm Dr Schär UK. "Consumers say it can take such a long time to find a product that suits them that they rarely shop around once they find a favourite."

This is supported by McCallum Layton’s research, which found that free-from consumers tended to "stick to a tried and trusted repertoire", but were "always on the lookout for new items to add". "We’ve seen from market data that the entry of Warburtons (January 2011) has not only brought new consumers to the free-from category, but also increased repertoire purchase, with many consumers adding gluten-free into their baskets on top of their usual purchases," said Warburtons marketing director Richard Hayes.

Availability of gluten-free is still problematic, however. "There’s variability, with some stores allocating only one bay to free-from," he adds. Yet the Co-operative Group’s new private-label gluten-free line in its convenience stores could spark a step-change.

While price and availability remain major gripes, the surveys show shoppers are increasingly happy with product quality. Gluten-free bakery products usually have a limited shelf-life and stale more rapidly. Previously products have required higher salt, sat fats and sugar, alienating healthy-eating shoppers. "Ideally, they require longer shelf-life stability, due to distribution channel complexities," says Cathrin Kurz, senior marketing analyst of National Starch Food Innovation, which has derived solutions from tapioca and rice.

Yet as the market moves from long-life to fresher products, salt levels can be reduced, drawing more people to gluten-free. "We predict solid growth over the next five-to-six years," says Mintel’s Jago. "We’re increasingly seeing private-label products which supermarkets have more freedom to play around with merchandised in other areas than just the free-from ghetto." Such as to spectators on Murray Mound at Wimbledon next year, perhaps (yes, he’s gone gluten-free too).

Do the maths: ’lifestylers’

l 1-2% of adults suffer from an allergy, compared to 5-8% of children (British Nutrition Foundation and Allergy UK)
l An estimated 1% of the population have coeliac disease (Coeliac UK)
l Currently 13% of people avoid gluten and 12% skip wheat (Mintel survey, July 2011)
l Up to 40% of shoppers buy free-from foods on a ’regularly occasional’ basis even though they have no medical need to do so (The Allergy & Gluten-Free Show 2011 survey)
l And 75% want to buy free-from in the main aisles and not in a dedicated free-from area