Gluten-Free. For years we have been trying to decide if the label is a safety warning, a new diet, or a marketing ploy. With the ever-increasing amount of people choosing gluten-free over other products, it’s safe to say that these trends are less about medical need and more about preference.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley and is used as a common additive in many processed food products including sauces, soups, marinades, and seasonings. For those with celiac disease, gluten is indigestible, meaning the enzymes required to breakdown the gluten protein are not present. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people worldwide with the number of people affected doubling every 15 years” The gluten-free diet, however, did not gain widespread attention until the late 2000s. In 2003, Alessio Fasano published a study finding that 1% of the population of the United States had celiac disease, thus igniting the mainstream push for higher regulation and greater understanding of the gluten-free diet.
How Gluten-Free Has Changed
According to the market research company NPD, “around 26-30 percent of adults in the U.S. claim to be reducing their gluten intake or avoiding gluten completely, despite not being diagnosed with any form of gluten sensitivity”. The research attributes the increase to the public conception that a gluten-free lifestyle is healthier for you, despite a lack of scientific evidence. With gluten-free becoming such a popular diet, the global industry has grown to $4.26 billion, proving not only the buying power of the gluten-free consumer, but also that those participating in the diet are swayed by consumer marketing rather than an intolerance.
One big push towards the change in consumer behavior has been product labeling. According to the FDA, foods may voluntarily be labeled gluten-free if they are inherently gluten-free or if they do not contain an ingredient with a gluten-containing grain. This rule is meant to do two things; 1) ensure the safety of individuals with celiac disease, and 2) create an even playing field for manufactures of gluten-free products. Unfortunately, the second goal has not always been met.
Companies have used gluten-free labeling as a successful marketing tool for selling products, taking advantage of publicized health benefits and general public misconception of what gluten is. Products like gluten-free water, fruit bars, and canned vegetables fly off the shelves because of their gluten free label, illustrating a lack of consumer understanding and the huge market power of the gluten-free label.
What’s to Come
When it comes to the massive influx in demand for gluten-free products, consumer perception is everything. The emphasis of gluten-free products as diet food is expected to act as a key driver for the industry growth over the next few years, with the industry expected to reach $33.05 billion by 2025, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc. Companies will adopt new marketing techniques including in-store cooking demonstrations, shelf tag signage, and sampling, all to try to meet these projections.
With the expected industry increase, there is great opportunity for gluten-free food manufacturers. Not only can gluten-free products add to the differentiation in a company’s product line, but they can also act as a huge sales driver in places like health food stores, retail chains, and online. In order to use a “Certified Gluten-Free Symbol”, facilities are required to have their gluten-free program verified by a third-party certifier. Companies like Safe Food Certifications conduct audits to analyze cross-contamination prevention programs, ingredient traceability, and supply chain verification.
With the growing demand and so many financial opportunities for food manufactures, it is expected to see the number of gluten-free products on the market to increase. Because at the end of the day, the numbers show that gluten-free is here to stay.