You can’t go anywhere these days without running into gluten-free products. Whether you’re at the grocery store or in a restaurant, the gluten-free option is everywhere. Heck, even the Girl Scouts this year are offering gluten-free cookies. The question is do you need to buy them?

Gluten-free, according to the Federal Government means getting rid of the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. People with severe gluten allergies, a condition called celiac disease, try to stay away from gluten. But those folks make up only one percent of the population. What’s going on now is the food manufacturers are promoting these foods to everyone as healthier.

And, it’s working. The business of gluten-free products is expected to grow 50 percent in the next few years to $15 billion in sales by 2016. Today’s gluten-free products are purchased by 11 percent of customers – more than ten times the number with celiac. At the same time, wheat flour consumption has fallen to a 22-year low, according to the U.S.D.A. So these non-wheat products are popular with loads of health-conscious consumers who believe in its benefits. Experts say as many as 18 million people or 6 percent of the population may have sensitivity to gluten.

But here’s the rub: These products are more expensive than their more common counterparts – way more. Consumer Reports estimate that gluten-free products can cost two to three times more than regular non-gluten free products. What’s more, you don’t have to pay the premium price to stay away from wheat in some categories. Plenty of foods are naturally gluten-free, like polenta, rice-crackers and nuts. 

Even so, food makers are on the bandwagon. General Mills, whose brands include Bisquick and Pillsbury, have begun reformulating products to remove gluten. It’s already reformulated Chex and plans to introduce gluten-free brownies, cookies and cakes next year. Likewise, the grocery store chain, Wegman’s, is now the country’s largest seller of gluten-free products. New brands, like Udi’s and Glutino, are taking advantage of the trend.

Just keep in mind as you shop the supermarket aisles that cheaper options may be available.

 

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Gerri Willis is the host of "The Willis Report" (5PM/ET), a primetime program that covers the leading financial and political stories of the day and their impact on consumers. Click here to see more from Gerri Willis.