Turkey moves in on gluten-free market

ISTANBUL – “I was like E.T. My skin was like a snake’s skin. My cheeks were sunken and I was a very weak and small girl before I knew that I had celiac disease,” says 26-year-old Yagmur Dilara Senkal, a customer representative at Istanbul's only 100 percent gluten-free restaurant.

Dilara is only one of the 35,000 people diagnosed with celiac disease in Turkey. It is thought that the real number is much higher as there are many people who are not even aware that they have the condition.

Celiac is an autoimmune disease which is triggered by a reaction to foods containing the protein gluten – including wheat, rye and barley. It is a sensitive disease, which requires special care and a life-long gluten-free diet.

As gluten is also used as a texture enhancer, stabilizer and thickener in many products, some health experts say 80 percent of foods contain gluten. Maintaining this diet is not easy.

This has fuelled demand for gluten-free foods worldwide. According to a report by U.S.-based research company MarketsandMarkets, North America dominated the gluten-free products market, followed by Europe in 2013.

The gluten-free products market is projected to reach $6.8 billion globally by 2019.

Back in Turkey, awareness about the condition is growing. “Even a small piece of bread can cause sickness like stomachache, diarrhea or nausea,” says Hilal Batmaz, a dietitian at Private Konak Hospital in Kocaeli province. “It is not a fatal disease alone but may cause serious diseases if patients are not careful about their diet.”

However, if patients stick to their diets, they will live a healthier life.

Dilara – who works Glutensiz a'da 216 – was always suffering stomachaches and nausea as she did not know she had celiac disease; she regained her health when she started a diet after being diagnosed in 2000 at the age of 11.

"In a short period of time, I grew taller, gained weight 15 kilos within three months and became a healthy person immediately. (…) I don’t have any problem right now,” she says.

As it is essential for those with celiac disease to be careful about what they eat, the role of supermarkets, restaurants and cafes has become crucial.

“Twenty years ago there were no gluten-free products in Turkey,” says Oya Ozden, 52, president of the Istanbul-based Society of Living with Celiac. “Life was so difficult for me at that time,” she adds.

Ozden learned of her disease first in 1995 when she was 32. She neither knew what celiac was nor what she would do after her diagnosis.

A very difficult life process started for her. She had to bake her own bread – an essential part of Turkish cuisine – for a long time, and had difficulty in finding the right things to eat.

Four years later, in 1999, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s affiliate corporation "People's Bread" produced gluten-free bread for the first time in the city. It later expanded its products, ranging from hamburgers to cookies.

Some flour, pasta, biscuit and dessert firms followed the bread company. In the last 15 years, the number of labels producing gluten-free products has increased across the country.

Eskisehir-based biscuit company ETI started selling gluten-free biscuits in 2003 and Istanbul's Sinangil Flour Company produced gluten-free flour in 2007.

“We sell around 30 tons of gluten-free flour a month,” says Serdar Aycicek, product quality department manager of the flour company. “Since 2007, our sales have increased six fold thanks to the start of state support (for celiac patients), and an increase in trust in gluten-free products.”

Even, a special restaurant for those with celiac, opened in 2011 in Istanbul’s Maltepe district on the city’s Anatolian side. Gluten-Free A’da 216 only offers gluten-free products. It is forbidden to enter there with gluten foods.

“Around 10 new people with celiac join us here every week. Unfortunately, the number of people with celiac is increasing every day,” says Tulin Taseren Unal, 43, administrator of the restaurant, whose 10-year-old girl also has the condition.

Dilara – who works at Glutensiz a'da 216 – says: “I generally meet with my friends here in this restaurant. I buy everything to eat here. Here is a place which has eased my life."

"Not every restaurant shows the same importance to us," she adds

Famous Istanbul-based desert company Gulluoglu has also been alert to this new market for celiac patients. It joined the companies producing gluten-free goods in 2013.

“It is a social-responsibility project. People with celiac are very glad to able to find gluten-free baklava (traditional dessert) here. The interest is increasing day by day,” says Nilgun Demirel, a food engineer at Gulluoglu. "We have also started sending baklava to Germany, France and America as well.”

“We are luckier right now as we can find something to eat outside,” Ozden adds. “It should develop; the goods should be diversified.”

In Turkey, there are no clear numbers about the size of the gluten-free products market as it is relatively new compared to other countries.

The market is developing every day but prices are still high. 

"Imported products are already expensive but domestic products are also not as cheap as the ingredients are special," Oya Ozden says. "It is an expensive disease."

“You should assign separate workers who will be careful while cooking products or have different places for gluten-free products. Gluten-free goods need special care so they are a little bit more expensive than the others,” Demirel, the Gulluoglu food engineer states.

World figures show that the numbers of those with celiac have been increasing day-by-day as people eat more baked goods or processed products.

The reason that companies showed interest in gluten-free goods a little bit late in Turkey was from a lack of awareness and the fact that people with celiac hid their disease.

“If the numbers of people who are aware of this disease increase, support for this condition will increase and our lives will get easier,” Ozden adds.

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency