Mention gluten-free, and food marketers, manufacturers, and the media begin to salivate. There’s certainly no shortage of chatter in the trade press or news media on the topic, and sales have yet to peak as the market for gluten-free products and menu options continues to burgeon. We have been examining consumers’ engagement in a gluten-free lifestyle and sharing our findings and perspectives on the sensation for several years. Today, just as in 2009, we are still trying to make sense of where the trend is currently and what it means for tomorrow. What we do know is that consumers are determined to control their own health and wellness, and the general trend is toward a higher-quality, more enjoyable life. With sales exceeding $4 billion in 2012, it’s clear to see that gluten-free has hit its stride in the mainstream marketplace.
From a macro health and wellness perspective, consumers remain laser-focused on fresh, local, high-quality foods with unwavering passion. For progressive wellness consumers, the avoidance of gluten hits at the root source of all wellness: digestion is the epicenter for a wellness lifestyle. Digestion is the single most important theme around which serious health and wellness issues converge (inflammation, weight management, immunity, energy, and food sensitivity). (Figure 1)
Figure 1. Digestion Is at the Epicenter of Wellness Trends
Consumers have begun to perceive digestion as the center of wellness, and this understanding expresses itself in five related domains.
Source: Wellness Trends, The Great Transformation, 2010 report, The Hartman Group, Inc.
While it has been well documented that a very small percentage of Americans actually have celiac disease, there is a large number of consumers who choose gluten-free and do so for a variety of other reasons. For these consumers, gluten-free symbolizes less processed. They believe that the overconsumption of processed foods has caused their bodies to turn against their own immune systems, expressing themselves in a variety of symptoms related to food sensitivities and allergies.
While a gluten-free diet is essential for those with celiac disease, many American consumers purchase gluten-free products for other health reasons:
As mentioned in our Ideas in Food: A Cultural Perspective 2013 report, progressive health and wellness consumers are avoiding not just gluten and wheat but also products made with grain-based flour altogether. To these consumers, it’s about abandoning not fiber-rich whole grains but the pulverized format, which consumers are reporting as aggravating food sensitivities and compromising healthy digestion.
It may seem that gluten intolerance is becoming an epidemic. While scientists have been breeding wheat for maximum yields, these new breeds have not been evaluated for digestibility. The result is that modern wheat contains more gluten. As such, consumers with gluten concerns are seeking heirloom varieties of wheat that are lower in gluten, including emmer, red fife, spelt, farro, freekeh, and kamut.
In an effort to achieve digestive harmony, progressive wellness consumers are avoiding inflammatory-inducing grain-based flours. But to reap the nutritive benefits of whole grains, nuts, and seeds, consumers are seeking alternative formats such as nut meal, coconut “flour,” and raw, sprouted, popped, and puffed grains.
The less-processed or free-from-processing aspect of gluten-free is what makes organic foods so appealing to many consumers. Core organic consumers favor gluten-free foods from authentic gluten-free traditions (e.g., Vietnamese rice noodles, Italian polenta, Indian poppadum) rather than overly processed gluten-free alternatives.
Nearly all organic users have heard of “gluten-free” foods, and 1 in 5 consumes them at least monthly. The more engaged the organic consumer, the higher the consumption rate. Except among the Core, most consumers who eat gluten-free foods have not changed their consumption patterns over the past year. (Figure 2)
Figure 2. Awareness and Purchase Trends of Gluten-Free
How Often Do You Consume Foods That Are Labeled “Gluten-Free?”
Source: Organic and Natural, 2012 report, The Hartman Group, Inc.
As confusing as the gluten-free trend may seem to the food industry and the press, consumers are equally mystified as they continue to figure out how to navigate the labyrinth of facts and fiction. The key for food industry stakeholders is to be able to separate trends from fads and bend culture at the moment it is changing in order to be able to develop innovative products that meet the quality criteria (e.g., taste, appearance, perceived benefits) that consumers seek within the constantly changing world of health and wellness.
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.