There's a lot of debate out there about whether the majority of people who buy gluten-free food have an actual medical condition that requires them to do so. But that hasn't stopped legions of consumers—led by Millennial foodies—from jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, pushing stateside sales for those items from an estimated $5.4 billion in 2012 to over $8 billion in 2014.
According to a 2013 market survey, conducted by Monash University, 78 percent of those who buy gluten-free foods say they do so for some sort of health reason. And that has many food companies and restaurants rushing to meet demand for gluten-free products, especially as they vie for larger shares of that all-important, health-conscious Millennial consumer segment.
The Science Behind Gluten Intolerance
Celiac sprue (a serious inflammatory gastrointestinal syndrome attributed to permanent intolerance to wheat gluten) is, in fact, extremely rare—it affects only 1 percent or less of the population. The thing is, regardless of the actual incidence rate of celiac sprue, many of the consumers who purchase gluten-free items believe themselves to have a sensitivity to wheat allergens, or at least believe that there are healthier nutritional options out there.
And that belief may have some support from hard science. A 1999 paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that classic celiac sprue may represent only one point along a spectrum of wheat gluten intolerances across the general population.
But is wheat gluten intolerance really to blame for everything from Crohn's disease to obesity to chronic sinusitis? Hm, be careful. There's a lot of pseudoscience and lifestyle charlatanism out there. After all, human populations have been successfully supporting themselves with wheat or partially wheat-based diets for centuries—the vast majority of which included no obesity epidemic.
It's much more likely that gluten intolerance is not well-understood, but not the Ultimate Dietary Supervillain that some folks would have us believe. But it's undoubtedly going to be a hot topic for additional research in the medical and nutritional health communities for the foreseeable future.
Is Gluten-Free A Bubble Market?
History clearly shows us that diet fads are unsustainable. Remember when so many consumers latched onto anti-oxidant rich foods and juices 5 years ago? Atkins in the early 2000s? How about the low-fat craze of the 1990s? The '70s-era "Grapefruit Diet?" These things are cyclical. You need to be careful about diving in too heavy to gluten-free.
Indeed, a fully gluten-free diet may be even more unhealthy for an individual than a gluten-light diet would be. Wheat-free diets are typically deficient in fiber, zinc and other important nutrients. Many nutrition experts advocate, in lieu of a gluten-free or paleo diet, moving toward the incorporation of more whole grains and a greater diversity of grains overall. Wheat isn't the only carb out there—rye, buckwheat, amaranth and other until-recently underutilized grains offer tasty (and nutritious) alternatives for consumers looking to limit their wheat intake.
A Plan For Dealing With Gluten-Free Mania
Should restaurants have a few gluten-free options on their menus? Sure, not a bad idea, from a marketing perspective. After all, the demand is out there; you need something to bring gluten-free disciples in your door.
But all the hardcore gluten-free adherents out there will likely have gluten-neutral and/or gluten-friendly family members and friends eating with them. Should restaurants be re-writing their entire menus, tinkering with their core products and rearranging their kitchens to accommodate the current gluten hysteria? Probably not the best move over the long-term.
Instead, restaurants and food companies should look to strike a product balance. Meet the trend without giving your entire business over to it. Millennial foodies may want gluten-free right now, but what will they want in a year? Five years?
Better to look at the underlying cause of the current fad—deep concern for health and wellness—and develop products that clearly add value to the health-conscious consumer's dining experience.