Gluten-free’s house of cards is beginning to fall

Feb. 24, 2014 | by Suzy Badaracco
Gluten-free’s house of cards is beginning to fall

Estimated Celiac Sprue sufferers in the USA:Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the Celiac Sprue Association, said about 1 percent of the U.S population is afflicted with the genetic profile for Celiac Sprue. Of that 1 percent in the States, about 30 percent, only one-third of the 1 percent, will actually materialize the disease because it is not carried on one single gene.

Elaine Monarch of the Celiac Foundation agrees with the CSA that the number of people with Celiac is lower than 1 percent. Although about 300,000 are afflicted with Celiac disease in this country, another 150,000 are estimated to be undiagnosed. This estimate never goes above 250,000. The reason it is an estimate is because Celiac Sprue is an unreported disease – the CDC does not require its tracking by hospitals or doctors so there is no way to measure the actual number.

The Mayo Clinic reports that only 0.71 percent have Celiac Sprue in the USA and Columbia University reported that only 0.55 percent have gluten sensitivity or non-Celiac sensitivity.

Market decline

According to Packaged Facts, the gluten-free (GF) market has peaked. And in the past two years, it has failed to attract new users. Some 18 percent of consumers bought a GF food/drink in the past 3 months, up only 3 percent vs. 2010, according to their "Gluten-Free Foods in the US" report. Just 35 percent buy GF foods believing they are healthier (the No. 1 reason) down from 46 percent two years ago. Those buying GF products thinking they are higher quality fell from 24 percent in 2010 to 18 percent. Consumers who think GF is a gimmick doubled (11 to 24 percent); 20 percent say GF is a fad. As the market turns towards those who must remain medically gluten-free, growth rates are projected to drop to 10 percent in 2012-15 and 7 percent in 2016-17.

Symphony IRI reports that growth rates of key label claims — organic, natural, and gluten-free — are leveling off. In the Executive briefing "What's In Store for Health & Wellness?" sales growth rates of products featuring several high-profile claims slowed in 2012. Gluten-free's growth rate in 2012 was cut by more than half its 2009-2011 growth with sales performance at 8.8 percent in 2012 vs. 21.2 percent 2009-2011.

NPD reports that gluten free growth remains small. About 28 percent of adults 18 and older reported they are avoiding gluten, a 1-percent increase since 2010. In a survey taken from January to September 2012, 26 percent of adults 18 to 59 years old said they were avoiding gluten, up from 24 percent in 2010. Similarly, 30 percent of adults over 55 said they were avoiding gluten, up from 29 percent in 2010. About 1 percent of consumers indicated they had ordered food described on a menu as gluten-free or wheat free.

Researchers have also uncovered that gluten purchases are not always intentional or desired. Hartman was the first to discover this when they reported that 53 percent who bought gluten-free did not know the product was gluten-free and had no intention of buying gluten-free. Packaged Facts too found that 31 percent of consumers said some products that they buy for other reasons happened to be marked gluten-free however, gluten-free was not a desired quality.

Hartman was the first to report that 95 percent of consumers who followed a gluten-free diet stated they did not have Celiac Sprue and were not gluten intolerant. According to Mintel, 65 percent of consumers who eat or used to eat gluten-free foods do so because they think they are healthier, 27 percent eat them because they believe they cause weight loss. As this misinformation is corrected and consumers become educated on the use of a gluten free diet – the number of consumers abandoning the diet will rise.

Adversaries to the trend

The gluten-free trend currently has 65 adversarial groups being track and the number is growing. It also has no allies in that there are no health experts recommending this diet to anyone who does not medically need the diet. The adversaries include noted registered dietitians, nutritionists, medical doctors and PhD's, the FDA, the British Dietetics Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Adversarial groups do not wish to crash the trend but to reposition it toward its intended audience. Their concerns include nutritional deficiencies, fiber deficiencies, immune system harm, probiotic destruction, and empty calories. Monash University reported that nutritional inadequacy of gluten-free diets were found in newly diagnosed and longterm celiac patients. Research from the University of Arizona and the Spanish National Research Council found that a GF diet sets up a hostile environment for probiotics, healthy gut bacteria, by eliminating their food – prebiotics. This then can lead to lower immune cell production and further digestive issues. Oregon State University reported in 2013 that gut bacteria are closely linked to immune functions.

Bottom Line

  • This trend is on the decline. If the decision is made to enter the trend either: Prepare to downsize production as the trend downsizes to the appropriate audience, ~500,000 consumers; Have a fast acting exit strategy.
  • Focus on sales numbers and behavioral research, not product launch data. The decline in purchasing will precede launch declines.
  • Focus on the trends trajectory, not what your competitors are doing.
  • Don't shoot the messenger.

Topics: Food Allergies / Gluten-free, Health & Nutrition, Trends / Statistics

Suzy Badaracco
Suzy Badaracco is a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian. She holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics, an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition. wwwView Suzy Badaracco's profile on LinkedIn

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