Why We’re Wasting Billions on Gluten-Free Food

Many of us paying a premium to avoid the gluten in our food are doing so without any good medical reason.

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A new survey from market research firm the NPD Group finds that America is cutting gluten out of its diet in a big way. Just under one-third of 1,000 respondents agreed with the statement: “I’m trying to cut back/avoid Gluten in my diet.”

That’s the highest level since the company added gluten consumption to the surveys it does about Americans’ eating habits in 2009. TIME labeled the gluten-free movement #2 on its top 10 list of food trends for 2012.

As food fads go, though, this one’s not only enormous: It’s enormously expensive — and many of us paying a premium to avoid gluten are doing so without any legitimate medical reason.

First of all, why is gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye and barley — so bad? Well, for most of us, it isn’t. The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center estimates that more than 3 million Americans — about one in 133 — have celiac disease, in which consuming gluten triggers a serious autoimmune response in the digestive system. A larger number — exactly how many has been the source of debate, with studies some claiming as many as one in 16 Americans and others saying  far fewer — have a less-severe sensitivity to gluten that causes gastrointestinal distress.

But that still doesn’t add up to the NPD Group’s finding that 29% of Americans are trying to avoid gluten. The numbers suggest that many consumers are staying away from gluten simply because it’s trendy to do so.

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Avoiding certain ingredients goes in cycles: Back in the 70s, it was sugar. Then it was fat, then saturated fat. Then fat was in but carbs were out. Gluten is the pariah ingredient du jour, and there are a lot of healthy people shelling out big bucks for gluten-free food they probably don’t need.

“Most people must be doing this because they think they feel better, or they do feel better but they’re not diagnosed with gluten issues,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. As TIME Healthland pointed out:

People who have bad reactions to common gluten-containing foods — pasta, breads, baked goods and breakfast cereal — may actually be sensitive to something else… It’s also possible that some people develop gastrointestinal or other symptoms simply because they believe they’re food-sensitive.

None of this would be a huge problem, except that this is an exceptionally pricey food fad. Producing gluten-free items, especially baked goods, is more expensive because manufacturers have to come up with alternatives that will give the finished product the same light, chewy texture that gluten imparts.

Researchers from Dalhousie Medical School at Dalhousie University in Canada compared the prices of 56 ordinary grocery items that contain gluten with their gluten-free counterparts. All of the gluten-free ones were more expensive, and some were much more expensive. On average, gluten-free products were a whopping 242% pricier than the gluten-containing versions.

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An increasing number of food manufacturers have risen to the challenge of producing more gluten-free products, and the category is big business. Market research company Packaged Facts said in a report last fall the gluten-free market in the United States was $4.2 billion last year. It predicts that the category will grow to $6.6 billion by 2017.

Balzer thinks the gluten-free craze is an evolution and an expansion of the low-carb trend. Unlike a dietary modification that affects only a fraction of the population, like cutting out certain foods to reduce cholesterol, framing the gluten issue as being about “wellness” makes it inclusive enough that everyone can participate. “Digestive health has become a buzzword of how to deal with health in America today,” Balzer says. Probiotics are another popular food trend that fits the wellness category.

“We’ve come to address health as something beyond removal” of ingredients, he says. In other words, we’ve abandoned the idea of deprivation and decided that instead of simply eating less to feel better and be healthy, we’ll just eat different stuff. “The concept of being on a diet is, I think, losing favor even if you are watching what you eat,” Balzer says. “It’s so much easier for Americans to say I’m concerned with wellness — I’m on a gluten-free diet.’”

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It’s also easier to declare success when “wellness” is the goal. If you’re on a conventional “diet” for months and still wearing the same size pants, you’ve clearly not achieved your objective. Declaring yourself gluten-free, on the other hand, takes away the pressure to achieve a visible result. Now you can have your (gluten-free) cake and eat it, too.