By Greg Gonzales
Gluten-free dog food, signs for gluten-free haircuts and even gluten-free lap dances are some of the jokes floating around these days, but the gluten-free market is serious business. Gluten-free options are everywhere now, and they’re not going away anytime soon. Even so, the market is set to shrink a little as a result of high prices and trendy eaters quitting the diet.
Research from NPD Group revealed that most consumers see gluten free as a fad, while they still seek natural, wholesome products. In addition, Packaged Facts reported that 53 percent of shoppers consider gluten-free foods overpriced, while 41 percent said they’d purchase gluten-free items if they were more affordable.
Though the trend may be at a peak, there’s plenty of support for the market. According to research from Mintel, 37 percent of consumers eat gluten free because they consider it good for overall health. Fifteen percent of U.S. consumers in a Nielsen survey said gluten free is a very important factor in purchasing decisions.
“The gluten-free trend is not disappearing,” said Kim Holman, Marketing Director of Wixon. “However, we are seeing a greater emphasis on transparency and consumers being able to easily identify gluten-free products on the shelves versus new formulations of gluten-free products.” Plus, consumers are increasingly expecting to know where their food came from, how it was made and if the product offers extra nutrition. Meanwhile, food producers are still moving to add “gluten free” to their labels. “When a formula is already gluten free or contains easily removable gluten, we are seeing many of our customers deciding to make the move to gluten free in order to be able to put the claim on their packaging,” Holman said.
Moreover, 80 percent of respondents in a global Nielsen market research survey said they’re willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, and the Mintel research showed that 26 percent of consumers believe gluten-free foods are worth the price bump. Not everyone in that group, however, has reason to believe gluten-free items are for them. “Consumers are making choices for their lifestyle, the way they want to live,” said Holman. “Consumers are looking for foods that eliminate unneeded and unwanted ingredients, and gluten is one of those ingredients for many people. I do think the trend may be peaking, as almost all research firms are declaring. And why is it peaking? Because eliminating gluten does not cure everything.”
According to Holman, stories of medical miracles spreading through social media were what drove the trend. “Stories of medical miracles made people believe that a gluten-free diet was best and gluten was the devil,” she said. Consumers and experts alike are calling those stories misguided.
Gluten free is a trend for the majority, but the diet and products are a legitimate medical need for at least seven percent of the population, if not much more. An estimated one percent of the population has celiac disease, and anywhere from 0.5 percent to 70 percent of the population could be non-celiac gluten-sensitive, according to Dr. Allesio Fasano, Founder and Director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Fifteen years ago, people didn’t know how to spell gluten,” Fasano said. “Now, in 2015, the pendulum has swung way over … any comedian includes gluten in their acts. People understand what it is, and it’s one of the most popular markets in the United States. The pendulum will come back a little bit, but not like the other diet trends; this diet is also driven by a real medical necessity and [that] will continue to drive the market.”
Fasano added that a gluten-free diet is a medical intervention, and that anyone considering going gluten free should seek advice from a dietitian. “You don’t inject yourself with insulin and then ask if you have diabetes or not,” he said. “Don’t give it a try just because someone told you that you have symptoms, and don’t do this by yourself.”
As new health research is released and gluten myth-busting becomes more visible — such as Fasano’s December 18 article in the Washington Post — consumers who don’t see results and expect transparency from companies are turning away from gluten-free foods. And until medical researchers like Fasano figure out how to diagnose non-celiac gluten sensitivities, gluten-free foods are potentially a necessity for anywhere from 1.5 percent to 70 percent of the population. While that’s being figured out, people have some diet choices to consider.
“The vendors need to let them know how things are done, to give the consumer a choice,” said Barry Novick, President of Kitchen Table Bakers. “You’re going to see free-from trends continue; that’s very very important. What is natural? Is baking in an oven natural? Is baking in a microwave natural? The consumer should know how the product is made. We have a patient’s bill of rights, and I believe the consumer should have a bill of rights.”
Novick identified poor nutrition content and low quality as reasons people are moving away from gluten-free products. In the rush to formulate products that taste like their gluten-containing counterparts, many of those products failed to measure up in taste and texture.
“If the product is good, it should diversify,” said Novick. “If it’s just gluten free because that’s what people made, it’s going to end up in the same position as the low-carb fad products,” adding that companies are finding success using real people for tasting, and not just formulas, to mimic gluten.
Chris Licata, President and CEO of Blake’s All Natural, reiterated Novick’s point: “I think the products and the brands that are truly committed to making super-high-quality gluten-free meals will continue to grow. There’s a reason why we don’t have 10 or 12 gluten-free items; that’s because if we make a gluten-free item, it truly has to be as good as a similar item that’s not gluten free. It’s not enough to just have it be labeled gluten free; it has to have taste, texture and flavors that are comparable.”
Novick said his gluten-free products, cheese crisps, work because everyone can enjoy them, that, “You need something universal, that the kids can eat and the parents can have with a glass of wine.… Wherever you go, whatever your diet, you can have our product at the party. You’re never left out.”
With so much time, effort and dollar amounts spent on adding gluten-free options to their lineups, producers within the industry won’t be taking the label off their products. And continued and increased consumer interest in free-from and natural products, nutrient-dense superfoods, along with the many alternatives to gluten, leaves room for the market to grow.
“Many manufacturers want the added value of being gluten free and a small additional cost, but in the end, consumers will decide if gluten free stays or goes,” Wixon food scientist Renee Santy said. “They will speak with their wallet. In the meantime, companies need to stay in touch with their customers and understand their changing needs around gluten free.”
“Many consumers had hoped that gluten free would help them lose weight or help some medical issue. When this does not transpire, they will lose interest in gluten free,” Santy added. “But those consumers, that just feel better because they live gluten free, will continue to live gluten free.”
An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Kim Holman to Renee Santy. This story has been updated to correct the attribution.