Is Gluten-Free Eating a Trend Worth Noting?

Is it a fad, or is it really catching on as a healthful way to eat? And if it is catching on, are food and beverage marketers giving it sufficient attention to take advantage of the demand curve? If gluten-free foods were only appealing to those who are truly gluten intolerant – those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity – the market potential would likely remain relatively small. Eating gluten-free foods is being touted, however, for its broader health benefits for all consumers. The claims are that avoiding gluten can improve cholesterol levels, promote digestive health, and increase energy levels. Some studies have shown that avoiding gluten is beneficial to those suffering from thyroid disease, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, anemia, autism, and irritable bowel syndrome. It’s also claimed to be beneficial to those wishing to lose weight.

Our Dieting Monitor shows a gradual but steady increase in the percentage of adults who say they are cutting down on or avoiding gluten completely. The group is large: over one in every four adults. Both younger and older adults are increasingly claiming to be reducing consumption of foods containing gluten.

To avoid gluten means these adults avoid products made with wheat, barley, rye, and triticale and foods made with bulgur, durum flour farina, graham flour, kamut, and semolina spelt. More specifically, it means avoiding beer, breads, cakes and pies, candies, cereals, cookies and crackers, croutons, French fries, gravies, pastas, processed luncheon meats, salad dressings, sauces, and more. They’re avoiding a long list of some favorite foods.

In our CREST® report on restaurant meal and snack eating, consumers are asked if they ordered something off the menu that was listed as high protein, whole grain, sugar-free, or described in another way. About one percent mentioned ordering food described on the menu as gluten-free or wheat-free. While that appears a small percentage, the incidence has grown over time and is now more than double what it was four years ago – accounting for over 200 million restaurant visits in the past year.

As noted with overall food consumption, both younger and older restaurant customers can be counted among those consuming foods described as gluten-free when visiting restaurants.

Consumer packaged goods manufacturers can benefit from this trend. Appropriately labeling a product as “Gluten- Free” can remove barriers to usage for consumers with gluten issues or those who wish to cut down on its consumption. Even if the product naturally lacks gluten, consumers might not know all the sources of gluten and the label would quickly remove any doubt.

The number of U.S. adults who say they are cutting down on or avoiding gluten is too large for this interest to be dismissed as a fad. Offering gluten-free items to support these consumers is another means operators have to deliver healthful menu choices.

We are considering exploring this subject with deeper research. If you are interested in learning more about consumers’ concerns about gluten, please contact Darren Seifer at 212-515-8758 or email Darren.Seifer@npd.com.

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