“Making Sense of the Gluten-Free Trend”

Here is an interesting article on the gluten-free “trend,” prepared by the Hartman Group:

There is little question that consumer interest in gluten-free eating habits—as well as gluten-free products—is on the rise. While many marketers have estimated 15% to 25% of U.S. consumers are interested in gluten-free products, our own research concludes that the number is 13.2%, or about 40 million people1. While this is currently a sizeable marketplace, important questions remain regarding long-term opportunity. Is gluten-free an enduring trend with serious legs? Or, alternately, is our collective interest in gluten-free merely a passing fancy much like low-carb dieting? Likewise, while there is no question that sales of gluten-free products are experiencing rapid growth, one must remember that any new category experiences such growth. It’s easy to generate impressive growth results when you start from zero.

Many people commonly associate gluten-free dieting with celiac disease, but to do so would be to overlook the remaining 93% of gluten-free interested dieters who in fact are not diagnosed celiacs. In our own research, for example, we found that of the 13.2% consumers who had recently purchased gluten-free products, only 7.5% of the 13.2% did so as treatment for celiac disease—either for themselves or a family member. Working backwards this indicates a 1% incidence of celiac disease in our sample. This number is in line with most conventional estimates which suggest the incidence of celiac disease is between .5% and 1% of the US population2.

So if the vast majority of consumers purchasing gluten-free products are doing so not as an adjunct treatment to celiac disease, why are they purchasing these products? We have identified three distinct—yet often overlapping—segments of gluten-free diet practitioners: Those with an overall interest in health and wellness, those with an interest in ascetic-based practices of self-improvement, and the ever present fad dieters looking for the “flavor of the month” diet trend. Not surprisingly, each of these segments was well represented as an explanation for the purchase and/or use of gluten-free analog products in our recent research. So what can these segments tell us about the long term viability of gluten-free analogs as a successful product category?

First, we must distinguish between a dietary approach that focuses on foods which just happen to be gluten-free by design (popcorn, potato chips, hummus, guacamole) vs. gluten-free analog products—products designed to mimic their gluten-based cousins by substituting certain ingredients that mimic the role of wheat gluten in the production process. As most seriously dedicated health and wellness consumers quickly realize, the former is almost always far healthier—and tastier—than the latter. Gluten-free by design might include, for example, much of the lexicon of Indian, Mexican and most Asian cuisines without having to sacrifice taste or seek out new products. By comparison, many—though by no means all—gluten-free analog products often accomplish their mission by substituting unusually high-carb ingredients (i.e., potato, corn or tapioca starches) in place of wheat flour, often at great cost to the consumer3. The result, perhaps ironically, is that a diet based on gluten-free analog products available in conventional retail formats will often prove exceptionally high in carbohydrates and may, in fact, lead to spikes in one’s glycemic index as a result of the inherent lack of dietary fiber. In this, gluten-free represents a full pendulum shift away from low-carb which veers back into the highest-carb territory.

Likewise, as we saw in the case of low-carb, certain diets that place too many serious restrictions on the most common of ingredients, often prove to be short-term blips because of the social nature of eating. Simply put, one can only go on for so long before the burdensome restrictions become irritable to everyone around them—not to mention themselves. In fact, we often hear from many consumers that the only way they are able to follow such restrictive practices is to eat alone, by one’s self—in a vacuum. And this is the surest red-flag of a fad diet because we are, by nature, social creatures. Another way of putting this is do you think Ernest Hemingway—or, for that matter Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart—would ever resort to gluten-free cake?

And finally, we come to the ascetic practitioners of the lifestyle. It really says something that the leading lifestyle publication in support of a gluten-free existence is entitled Living Without. As one consumer wryly noted of the magazine’s title, “Why don’t you call your magazine ‘My pathetic life without cupcakes’ since your viewpoint is that I do nothing but fantasize about desserts that I shouldn’t be eating.” This perspective alone should present a red-flag that gluten-free will never be a full-fledged, long-term food trend. For despite our Puritan history, we disavow that legacy mightily at nearly every meal, as evidenced by our burgeoning waistlines.

Will there always be a marketplace for gluten-free analog products? Yes there will. But will gluten-free rise up as something significantly important—perhaps as important as, say, organic—to become one of the most enduring, mainstream food trends of the next decade? Absolutely not.

And just how big the marketplace opportunity for gluten-free analogs really is remains to be seen. But while many are implored to seek opportunity anywhere they can in this recessionary landscape, we would caution sacrificing your brand’s long-term quality halo for a short-term lift in sales. In other words, ask yourself, “What does gluten-free really do for our overall brand?”

Footnotes for above:

1Data Gathered by the Hartman Group from a nationally representative sample of 1,730 US consumers fielded in July, 2009.

2In a recent article in The New York Times, writer Lesley Alderman places the figure 1 in 100. “The Expenses of Eating with Celiac Disease,” The New York Times, 9/15/2009.

3As Lesley Alderman noted “(reliance on gluten-free analogs) can be expensive and might not even be that healthy, since most gluten-free products are not fortified with vitamins.” “The Expenses of Eating with Celiac Disease,” The New York Times, 9/15/2009.

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