Gluten-free growing despite changing perceptions

by Rebekah Schouten
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Gluten-free food sales grew to 6.5% of total food sales in 2015 from 2.8% in 2013.

CHICAGO — Nearly half of Americans consider gluten-free diets to be a fad, but 67% more consumers are eating gluten-free foods than two years ago, according to research from Mintel. Twenty-five per cent of consumers said they consume gluten-free foods, even though the amount of gluten-free diet doubters has grown to 47% in 2015 from 31% in 2013.

But the skeptics haven’t hindered sales of gluten-free foods. The category has grown 136% from 2013 to 2015, reaching estimated sales of $11.6 billion in 2015. Gluten-free food sales grew to 6.5% of total food sales in 2015 from 2.8% in 2013.

Of those buying gluten-free foods, Mintel’s research showed 90% are satisfied with the available options, and 35% agreed the quality of gluten-free foods is higher than before. In fact, 26% of consumers said they are willing to pay a premium for these higher-quality gluten-free options and that the products are worth their added cost.

Those gravitating toward gluten-free foods are not all gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive. Mintel’s research showed that consumers perceive foods with any free-from claim to be healthier and less processed. Thirty-seven per cent of consumers said they eat gluten-free foods because they believe it is better for their overall health, while 16% claimed they do so because “gluten is bad for you.” Eleven per cent consume gluten-free products because a health care professional suggested they eliminate gluten from their diets.

Despite consumers linking gluten-free foods to health, those eating gluten-free foods for weight loss dropped 25% in the past year. Twenty-three per cent of consumers said they only incorporate gluten-free foods into their diets some of the time, indicating that consumers are beginning to view gluten-free foods as a contributing factor to overall well-being rather than weight loss tools.

Twenty-seven per cent of gluten-free food consumers are looking for gluten-free labels on food packaging, but trust in gluten-free product claims has slackened. Forty-five per cent of consumers trust that products bearing a gluten-free claim actually are gluten-free, down from 48% in 2014. Another 45% agreed that manufacturers should not label products as gluten-free if they never contained gluten in the first place.

Amanda Topper, Mintel
Amanda Topper, senior food analyst at Mintel

“While some consumers view the gluten-free diet as a fad and are looking for improved nutrition and ingredients in gluten-free foods, consumption continues to trend upward,” said Amanda Topper, senior food analyst at Mintel. “Large and small manufacturers are entering the gluten-free category, increasing the availability, quality and variety of gluten-free foods while Americans display interest in incorporating these foods into their diet. However, since trust toward manufacturers’ labeling of gluten-free foods has slightly waned, they should consider providing messaging about the steps taken to ensure their products are gluten-free to reassure consumers. Americans have come to expect brands and products to be transparent and trust that the items they purchase are as advertised.”

Restaurants are catering to the gluten-free consumer as well. According to Mintel Menu Insights, gluten-free as an ingredient claim on menus grew 127% in the past three years and is now the top nutritional ingredient claim. Ten per cent of U.S. restaurants now feature a gluten-free menu, appealing to the 22% of gluten-free food consumers who are more likely to visit restaurants offering a specific gluten-free menu. The number of items on those menus grew 9% from 2012 to 2015, with gluten-free as a dish claim growing by 24% over the same period, making gluten-free the top menu item claim.

Gluten-free restaurant menus
Ten per cent of U.S. restaurants now feature a gluten-free menu.

“While finding gluten-free foods away from home can prove difficult for gluten-free food consumers, there has been growth in gluten-free restaurant options as gluten-free diets have become more popular,” Ms. Topper said. “In the past, it may not have been feasible for celiacs and gluten-free food consumers overall to find these foods at restaurants. Moving forward, there should be more expansive gluten-free menu offerings as the food service industry competes with retail for the rising number of gluten-free Americans.”
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