The world's first mass-produced, certified gluten-free crab cake? At least a Maryland company is making it.
Bread crumbs used in typical crab cakes contain gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, barley or rye that many people — potentially millions worldwide — have trouble digesting. So Salisbury-based Handy International Corp., which has been in business since 1903, found a way around the problem. After months of testing recipes, the seafood company crafted a version with crumbs made with rice flour.
And presto. A gluten-free crab cake that's now available in frozen food aisles in several major grocery chains around the country.
"It's a little bit moister, and it seems to be a little more flavorful," said Carol Haltaman, Handy's senior vice president of new products, who says Handy is the first seafood company to roll out such a product.
Gluten-free breads, cakes, cereal, pretzels, pizza and even beer are increasingly available for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder whose painful gastrointestinal symptoms can be triggered by gluten. At the same time, scientific and public interest has prompted food companies to expand gluten-free product lines and market to consumers who believe they have a sensitivity to gluten or who think a gluten-free diet is more healthful.
"When we started reading about the growing market for gluten-free, it got our attention," Haltaman said.
The U.S. market for gluten-free products is expected to grow from $1.8 billion in 2009 to more than $2.2 billion in 2014, according to Datamonitor, a market research firm. In 2009, more than 1 in 10 food products launched included a gluten-free claim, according to Datamonitor.
Suzy Badaracco, a dietician who runs Culinary Tides, a food trends consulting group based in Portland, Ore., said she's worried that the gluten-free trend is a bubble waiting to burst for food marketers, akin to what happened during the height of the low-fat and low-carb trends in the past.
Adopting a gluten-free diet is typically seen as a medical necessity, she said. But a gluten-free diet can be a complex undertaking, as adopters of the regimen must be sure they get proper amounts of key vitamins and nutrients. So consumers without the disease are unlikely to stay on it, she said.
"There's no reason to be on this diet unless you need it medically," Badaracco said.
For food companies such as Handy, Badaracco offers advice. Either make gluten-free products that take advantage of the spike in consumer interest in the short term, and prepare for a quick exit when consumers lose interest — or commit long-term to supplying gluten-free food products to a limited market of consumers who need the food for their diet.
Haltaman said that Handy's market research convinced the company there was a growing market in gluten-free products. The company makes various kinds of crab-based foods, and products with shrimp and salmon.
Handy, which has a seafood processing plant in Crisfield, makes its gluten-free crab cakes at a plant in Thailand but markets that and other crab cake products in the United States.
About a decade ago, the company shifted the bulk of its seafood production to Asia, where there is a larger supply of crabs. It now employs about 2,000 workers there. Handy buys bread made with rice flour from a Thai bakery, and then grinds it into crumbs for use in the gluten-free crab cakes.
To make a gluten-free crab cake, Haltaman said, its plant needed to adopt new procedures for producing the food item without contamination from gluten. The company received independent approval for its practices from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, a nonprofit group based in Washington.
"We make these cakes on a day when nothing else is being produced. … The plant has to be totally clear of gluten," Haltaman said. She added that they altered the ratio of ingredients slightly to increase the moistness of the gluten-free crab cake.
The price starts at $69.99 for six Handy gluten-free crab cakes, which can be found at Costco, Whole Foods and Weis supermarkets. Handy also sells them on its website, glutenfreecrabcake.com.
The medical community over the past decade has increasingly focused on gluten as a trigger for digestive problems, allergies and celiac disease. A seminal epidemiological study published several years ago by the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Disease Research in Baltimore raised awareness of gluten as a potential problem in people's diets.
Whereas in the past, the incidence of people with celiac disease was considered extremely rare and limited mostly to children, the university study found that roughly one in 133 Americans could suffer from the disease. Symptoms include chronic diarrhea, bloating, weight loss, and vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.
Gluten-free diets are not a fad but here to stay, according to Alessio Fasano, director of the Maryland center and the principal investigator of the 2003 study.
"We went from one end of the spectrum, where nobody knows about celiac disease, to the other point, where you're seeing it everywhere," Fasano said. "It was discovered for the first time 2,000 years ago, and it's not going to go away."