Gluten-free and growing: Addressing a health concern at the concession stand


Labeling of food and beverage products has been a hot topic in our industry, both in terms of packaging and menu boards. It’s an important subject because it goes right to the heart of the obesity problem in this country, educating and informing the customer at the time of purchase. With sweets and fatty foods you could argue that informing only goes so far, that the customer then still has to choose to purchase the product or not. It’s the old proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” However, there is another type of labeling that has been growing steadily in the last five years and that is related to more immediate health concerns: gluten-free.

Gluten is defined by Wikipedia as “a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture. Gluten may also be found in some cosmetics, hair products, and other dermatological preparations.”

Oddly enough, gluten was discovered in the seventh century by Buddhist monks, as a substitute for meat. But it has become a primary ingredient in processed foods, which make up a large portion of the U.S. diet. It has become a target in recent years, as statistics now show that approximately one in 133 people have some level of intolerance to it. In the U.S., that is a market of about 20 million people. Tack on the number of people who are trying to eliminate it from their diets for overall health concerns, and the number jumps to 29% of the population.

So we now have a booming market for gluten-free products, to the tune of about $4.2 billion annually, and growing. It truly came out of thin air as the FDA sought to determine exactly what constitutes a gluten-free product in order to label it as such. A new FDA  rule was proposed in 2007 and has just been announced as final, becoming a law by August 2014. The rule requires all products carrying the claim to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten, the lowest detectable level. Entire shelves and aisles at grocery stores now carry gluten-free products, and while the time frame has been very short for its growth, it seems to be more than just a trend.

The number of people with actual celiac disease is very small. To them, gluten is true poison. But for a large group of people as mentioned above, this is an ingredient that many want to avoid. So for the theatre industry, having products that can be labeled gluten-free available for purchase is going to be attractive for a share of the market. The best news of the day is that popcorn, cooked in oil, is commonly gluten-free. You have to insure that the corn, oil and salt are processed in a facility that does not allow cross-contamination, but the products in their base form are naturally gluten-free. Should this be something we market? With the growing interest in gluten-free products, we must consider it. It could be an easy win in the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers in the current health debate.

We could also introduce other snack products which are gluten-free and increase that outreach. There are specifics in the ruling related to wording of the product as gluten-free, and there will be a guidance document issued that will oversee compliance testing when products are questioned. But the market is maturing fast enough to have confidence in the many products already on the market, and the annual amount being spent on these items makes the potential very real to satisfy our customers with a few solutions.

Consumers’ increasing focus on health, whether it comes naturally to them or is being forced on them through the battle over obesity, means they are open to trying new products and they are willing to spend money on them. The interesting aspect of gluten is that it impacts health by adversely affecting the digestive system and ultimately the immune system. These are issues associated with the simple aspect of feeling good. It’s not hard to find people who are intolerant to gluten; I would bet that most people reading this know at least one person with this issue. So this is not the typical perception that “I need to eat healthy,” when we know people like to go to the movies and indulge. This is a true malaise that affects the body when gluten is ingested. People will eat gluten-free products because the alternative really does have an immediate effect on them. As opposed to “healthy” snacks that don’t sell well, gluten-free products seem to have a higher potential for success and merit a consideration for inclusion on the menu.

E-mail your comments to