Gluten-Free Keeps on Going

How we think about and understand nutrition and our bodies is ever evolving as food literacy continues to grow: this would include awareness of the perceived effects of gluten in the diet, a nutritional concern that we first started tracking at The Hartman Group about 15 years ago. Concern over gluten in the diet reflects the notion that as guideposts, food, diet and nutrition have increasingly become the markers consumers use to both assess and express their wellness values. According to our Health + Wellness 2019 report, more consumers than ever are experimenting with their diet, and free-from diets are on the rise, with 9% of consumers reporting they were eating gluten-free in the past year. From a higher altitude, half of consumers (50%) have experimented with some type of diet or eating approach in the past 12 months. 

In line with their thinking of the effects of gluten on their overall wellness, consumers have continued to be interested in gluten-free, and manufacturers have responded with a broad range of gluten-free product launches featuring flours based on diverse sources ranging from nuts to vegetables. Commenting on the gluten-free trend in a recent Food Business News article, Melissa Abbott, VP Hartman Group Retainer Services, said, "Such products are perceived as healthier than traditional options ... When we started seeing the gluten-free trend happen a decade and a half ago, it was really in part a reaction, and it continues to be a reaction against highly processed, industrialized products that are made with industrialized flour. Fast forward a few years, and we start to see other diets come to the fore, like Whole30 and paleo, that leverage this notion that highly refined carbohydrates, particularly grains, were not good for you, and that included gluten.”

Consumers’ rationales for purchasing gluten-free products demonstrate that they do not mistakenly believe they have celiac disease. Instead, they associate gluten-containing foods with being high in carbohydrates, which they are often trying to avoid for a variety of reasons. Many also see foods that cater to dietary “restrictions” as offering a route to a more varied diet.

Will the proliferation of “gluten-free” products and claims continue? Only time will tell. We hypothesize that there’s something deeper at play. It could be the case that it’s something the consumer is inferring about these products that is driving growth. For instance, “digestive health” or “inherent functionality” might be the real product attributes that are behind consumers’ decisions to buy. We do know that early adopters of gluten-free eating — excluding those who must eliminate gluten for medical reasons — have discovered the diet has not necessarily delivered the health or weight loss benefits many initially expected. Whatever reason is behind gluten-free consumption, Health + Wellness 2019 finds that Baby Boomers are the least likely to have tried a new eating approach in the past year. Meanwhile, younger consumers show a preference for “lifestyle” diets focused on wellness, sustainability or animal welfare rather than weight loss.

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