Gluten-Free: Why the Label and Trend Can Last



Walk through almost any grocery store, bakery, or café and you’ll eventually come across a product with “gluten-free” stamped in prominent, bold letters on the box. The sign appears on everything from cakes and breads to innocuous offerings that never had gluten to begin with. For people with a medical condition, such as Celiac Disease, it makes buying and browsing safe and convenient; for others, it pulls them into a multi-million dollar industry that has boomed in recent years.

Nielsen reported an uptick in sales of gluten-free products as early as 2008, when sales jumped 20 percent over a 12-month period from $1.46 billion to $1.75 billion. The New York Times reports that in 2013, $10.5 billion worth of gluten-free products were sold. By 2016, it is expected to be an industry worth $15 billion in annual sales.

Going gluten-free is not just picking up a box stamped with the term, but changes entire routines. On the Nielsen top ten for adult non-fiction books sold between March 10 and 16, there are three books dealing with diets and health; two pertain to gluten, grains, and cooking. Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brain’s Silent Killers discusses links between grains, degenerative diseases, and ill health. The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook is a collection of recipes developed by America’s Test Kitchen that are, as the title suggests, gluten-free. The industry isn’t just food, but extends beyond the grocery store and into a person’s lifestyle.

It is a trend long noted, covered, and analyzed — people are entirely willing to give up gluten, but just what are they sacrificing? Gluten, the Mayo Clinic states, is a protein found in grains such as barley, rye, triticale, and wheat. A number of grains remain naturally gluten-free (provided there has been no cross-contamination); like cornmeal, flax, quinoa, and rice. The number of gluten-free grains easily outnumbers those containing gluten. An estimated 1 percent of the population has Celiac Disease, but a large segment is also self-diagnosing, and giving up gluten as part of an elimination test for allergies, or for supposed health benefits.

As a binding agent, gluten appears in any number of food products making its presence seem ubiquitous to those who are avoiding it. In this case, pointing out its absence becomes a boon for anyone marketing a product. The pervasiveness is on display at your local Whole Foods stores. Simply call up the gluten-free product list online, and you will notice everything from chocolates and almond milk to foundations and moisturizers that are gluten-free.

Again, when people have severe sensitivity to gluten, extreme steps can be a medical necessity. But, people are voluntarily choosing to be gluten-free, making the decision for reasons unrelated to a specific medical condition. Dr. Daniel Leffler, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who specializes in Celiac Disease and gastroenterology, discussed being gluten-free as a dietary choice with the Harvard Health Blog. “People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive,” Leffler said.

Tricia Thompson, a registered dietitian and founder of, also said there would be little benefit for people who have no medical need giving up gluten. Thompson told Eating Well that people who have an intolerance feel better after eliminating it from their diets “only because they were feeling so sick before,” and that “there’s probably no benefit,” of restricting your diet when not medically necessary.

Gluten-free is nothing new, especially for people who track food labeling. In 2007, Lynn Dornblaser, an analyst with market research firm Mintel, proclaimed to CNNMoney that gluten-free had replaced low-carb in diet trends. ”In the 1980s, health consciousness was all about calorie intake. So we saw the explosion of brands like Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers (Charts), and Healthy Choice,” she said. “In this decade, the focus is on low-carb. But low-carb foods have progressed from the least complicated type of products to those that address the most complicated components of low-carb.”

The pendulum may be starting to swing again, back to low-carb. Mintel research found the craze peaked in 2004, but aided by high-protein diets (Dukan, 5:2), was beginning to make a comeback in Europe. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of low-carb product launches doubled, and many were for baking products or pastas.

Laura Jones, Food Science Analyst at Mintel, said in the release detailing the 2014 low-carb resurgence that, “The Atkins diet did manage to make consumers a lot more ‘carb conscious’ and aware of the quantity and quality of carbohydrates they consume, and this underlying level of consciousness has been retained by some consumers.” This make it easier for customers to return to this thought, because the underlying knowledge of the diet and principles is present.

Even if gluten-free dies down, its decline is unlikely to replicate what was seen with Atkins or other low-carb plans. “The reason I do believe this has legs is that it ties into this whole naked and ‘free from’ trend,” Virginia Morris, vice president for consumer strategy and insights at Daymon Worldwide told The New York Times. “I think we as a country and as a globe will continue to be concerned about what’s going into our food supply.”

This, combined with the medical need for gluten-free products, make calling it purely a food fad a misnomer. While people may become less zealous for the diet, the products and industry are unlikely to disappear from the radar of marketers and grocery stores any time soon.

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