Coeliacs cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and there is no known medical treatment or cure for the illness. It can damage the small intestine and interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food.
Gluten-free products have been available in the Swiss market for some time, but only through specialist retailers, and the decision by Switzerland's biggest supermarket group (with sales in excess of SF14 billion last year) to begin stocking such products reflects the growing awareness of just how widespread the problem really is.
"We estimate that there are around 36,000 people in Switzerland who suffer from coeliac disease or similar symptoms, and around 6,000 who have been told to eat gluten-free products by their doctor," Migros spokesperson Monika Weibel told NutraIngredients.com.
"By stocking these products in our stores, we are offering a further service to our customers who suffer from coeliac disease - they will be able to buy all their gluten-free products at the same time as the rest of their groceries," she added.
The retailer is well-known in Switzerland for its own label products, which account for 90 per cent of its sales, but the gluten-free range will not come under the Migros brand. Instead, the group will stock the range of products produced by Nutricia, sold under the Glutafin range.
"We wanted to offer this service to our customers, but it is never going to be a major revenue stream for us," Weibel said. "It was simply easier and more economical to use an existing brand than to develop a gluten-free range under the Migros label."
Some 10 products are already available, including biscuits, pasta, crackers, cakes and flour, and several more will be launched in the summer, in particular bread and patisserie products such as baguettes, ciabatta, croissants and pizza dough. More items could be added if there is sufficient demand, Weibel said.
Each product carries the same logo - an ear of corn with a line through it - to identify it as suitable for coeliacs.
Migros will only offer the range in its larger stores (its MMM-branded hypermarkets and some of the larger supermarkets under the MM banner).