Frito-Lay Jumps Into Gluten-Free Craze With New Labels

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Two years ago, Melanie Montemurno finally went on a gluten-free diet after enduring stomach problems and acid reflux since she was a child.

The 29-year-old architect's assistant was never actually tested for a gluten allergy or diagnosed with associated celiac disease. But after complaining to her chiropractor, he suggested she immediately eliminate any products that contained gluten -- the protein in wheat, barley or rye flour.

"I thought I'd give it a try and I am feeling so much better," said Montemurno. "Initially, I found the transition difficult. I loved baked goods and enjoyed baking. But I have started finding new recipes."

Now, many of her friends are on gluten-free diets, part of a growing health trend that food companies and their marketing departments are starting to notice.

This week, junk food giant Frito-Lay is poised to roll out new labeling on a host of snacks, all of which will be promoted as "gluten-free:" Lay's, Doritos, Ruffles, Tostitos and Cheetos.

The company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, said in a news release from its corporate offices in Plano, Texas, that it has developed a validation program that meets Food and Drug Administration standards of 20 parts per million of gluten.

Even Montemurno recognizes it's a "marketing ploy."

"The majority of their junk food is gluten-free except for a few strange ones like Sun Chips and Pringles," she said.

Last year, Americans spent $2.64 billion on foods and beverages without gluten, up from $210 million in 2001, according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based market research firm. The number of food and beverage packages with gluten-free package claims or tags rose from fewer than 1,000 at the end of 2006 to 2,600 by 2010.

Sixty million gluten-free products are consumed in the U.S. each day, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

He said a growing number of people have a type of gluten intolerance called nonceliac gluten sensitivity, which isn't quite as serious as celiac disease but not to be taken lightly, either. Mounting evidence now suggests the number of people who have nonceliac gluten sensitivity may outnumber those who have full-blown celiac disease.

Celebrities like pop star Miley Cyrus have said they have taken on a gluten-free diet for their health.

"Gluten is crapppp anyway," she recently tweeted.

Those with sensitivities claim that gluten leaves them feeling tired, achy and bloated.

But Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Center at Columbia University in New York City, estimated close to 90 percent of dieters abandon gluten "as a food fad, or as a weight-reduction thing."

"On a weight-reduction diet, one typically avoids carbohydrates. And our main source of carbohydrates is wheat flour," he said, adding that breads and pasta are usually the first foods to go. "A weight-reduction diet is often a gluten-free diet."

But celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that destroys the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients from food, can be life-threatening.

Celiac Disease Runs in Families

The disease affects about 2 million Americans or about 1 in 133 people, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Those who have a parent, sibling or child diagnosed with celiac disease have a greater chance of developing the disease.

Montemurno's mother was diagnosed with celiac disease a year after her daughter embarked on a gluten-free diet.

"In my mom, it manifested as join pain," said Montemurno. "She thought she had RA [rheumatoid arthritis] and had given up."

Montemurno's sister was also tested and diagnosed.

"She had joint issues, too," she said. "She's a vegetarian and it's been rougher on her."

But Montemurno has said she will not get her blood tested because she would have to return to a gluten diet for a week.

Even if tests came back negative, she said, "I wouldn't go back to gluten."

"I feel better and am less tired," she said. "I am in better health, in general, so I would stick with it anyway."

Frito-Lay said it is working with the Celiac Disease Foundation and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to educate consumers and health professionals about gluten-free resources and options.

"We understand that living with gluten sensitivities can present some challenges, and when you or a loved one is diagnosed it can be overwhelming and confusing. We are doing our due diligence to ensure that our validated products comply with the proposed standards by testing ingredients and finished products, so the shopper can trust our gluten-free claim," said Kari Hecker Ryan, group manager of nutrition science and regulatory affairs at Frito-Lay North America in a press release.

But advertising experts know who the winners will be in the gluten-free craze.

"It's just the perfect storm" for retailers, said Larry D. Woodard, president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising and a columnist for ABCNews.com.

"You've got the retailers needing to increase sales, the marketers to sell more products and government regulation," he said. "Any time you have all three things, it feeds off itself."

Frito-Lay is not the only company trying to capitalize on the trend.

Makers of hummus -- a Middle Eastern dip made of chick peas and sesame paste -- are also touting snacks as "gluten-free."

"Obviously, it's never had gluten in it and never would," Woodard said. "Interesting, we are watching the whole 'no fructose corn syrup' thing. Peter Pan [peanut butter] has none and could put it in theirs. The labeling is very big. People are label shopping."

Dominoes Pizza tried to capitalize on the trend with a gluten-free crust, but it backfired, according to the New York Daily News. The North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease charged the company's claims were misleading. The pizza company had disclaimers, warning the product itself was not recommended for the disease.

Such marketing tactics are not new, according to Woodard, who has watched health fads come and go for three decades. Food companies put fat-free labels on products loaded up with sugar. Mayonnaise touted a plant form of omega-3 fatty acids, but only the fish oil ones have proven to be good for the heart.

"It's like the old days, when they used to sell elixirs 'good for what ails you,'" Woodard said.

But Americans are obsessed with taking short-cuts to good health, Woodard added.

"There are thousands of new products and it's all about the ability to leverage the consumer to live healthier," he said. "It's hilarious because it's like they really don't want to know most of the stuff [about good health]. It's all about the permissibility to eat it."

ABC's Katie Moisse, Jane Allen and Lara Salahi contributed to this story.

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