The gluten-free craze isn't slowing down anytime soon. In fact, it's moving into the less-healthy realm of the American diet: pizza and beer.
Pizza Hut will begin selling gluten-free pizza in about 2,400 of its 6,300 U.S. restaurants starting Jan. 26. The company said it will offer 10-inch cheese and pepperoni pizzas without gluten. Rival Domino's (DPZ) has had a gluten-free crust since 2012, though only the crust -- and not the entire pizza -- was technically gluten-free. Domino's doesn't guarantee that its pizzas would be completely free from gluten.
Even beer is starting to go gluten-free. MillerCoors said it will begin selling a "naturally gluten-free" version of Coors Peak Copper Lager in Seattle and Portland, Ad Age reports. It will be made with brown rice and pea protein instead of barley, giving the brew a "malty, slight caramel profile offset by subtly spicy hops," according to MillerCoors.
It will become one of the few gluten-free beers available from a major brewer. Anheuser-Busch (BUD) has sold the gluten-free Redbridge brand, but that never made it into the mass market. Even MillerCoors is limiting its new gluten-free Coors to Seattle and Portland, and says it has no plans to expand beyond those regions.
Expect more food and beverage producers to test the gluten-free waters, hoping to take advantage of one of the fastest-growing health trends in the country. Sales of gluten-free foods hit $4.2 billion in 2012, according to industry research firm Packaged Facts, and are expected to soar more than 50 percent by 2014.
Gluten-free foods have become popular as celiac disease and food allergies are increasingly diagnosed, according to Packaged Facts. Even friends and family members of those patients are going gluten-free to support their loved ones.
Others simply believe skipping the gluten is healthier, though they may not know why. ABC host Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew to the streets of Los Angeles last year to ask people on gluten-free diets what exactly gluten was. Some of them had no idea. "This is pretty sad, 'cause I don't know," one man said. "Gluten is like a grain, right?" asked another.
Gluten is actually a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It can be used as a thickener or binder to keep breads and other baked goods from falling apart.
About 44 million Americans have said they would be interested in buying gluten-free products, research firm Datamonitor reported. The biggest gluten-free company in the business is Udi's, which helped Pizza Hut develop its new pizza. Bob's Red Mill also has a well-established line of gluten-free ingredients.
Other companies are also trying to cash in on the trend. Pillsbury makes gluten-free pizza and cookie dough, Bisquick has gluten-free pancake mix, and Annie's makes gluten-free macaroni and cheese. Gluten-free indicators are also popping up menus at P.F. Chang's and other restaurants.
Even the Girl Scouts are responding to the increased demand by debuting two gluten-free cookies this year. One has bits of toffee in it and the other is made with peanut butter and whole-grain oats.