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New Clues to Deciphering the Gluten-Free Mystery

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Gluten-Free is riding high despite looming questions about its future.

Sales of gluten-free products surpassed $4 billion in 2012, an indicator that it’s “hit its stride in the mainstream marketplace,” according to the Harman Group. A recent SN survey of retailers found widespread stocking of packaged gluten-free products, in addition to a considerable number of outlets baking gluten-free items in-store. And the government is expected to soon approve rules that outline what foods can be labeled gluten-free, a move made necessary by growing demand.

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This was a big topic at the recent American Bakers Association Convention last month in Florida, as bakers, especially those supplying Center Store shelves, feel threatened by gluten-free.

Some experts have predicted the gluten-free trend won’t be able to sustain itself. Here’s how Hartman Group has put it: “The gluten-free marketplace will continue to see growth in the near term. In the long term, however, gluten-free will prove more reminiscent of fad dieting, such as low-carb, and doesn’t represent an enduring trend.”

So what’s going on here? Trend or fad? Why is it so hard to pinpoint the future course of this?


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I had the opportunity to moderate two sessions during the ABA event, and each of them at least briefly addressed the gluten-free topic. One speaker, Steve French, managing partner, Natural Marketing Institute, was especially insightful on this topic. He couldn’t say exactly where the trend is going, but he did a great job explaining why it’s so incredibly hard to predict, using some recent findings from his organization.

As he explained it, typically a health trend (as opposed to a fad) begins with early adopters, which NMI refers to as the “well beings,” the households most engaged in health and wellness, he said. From that group it usually flows into the mainstream.

“But that’s not happening with gluten-free,” he said.

In this category usage is highest among the “fence sitters,” a healthy-wannabes, younger consumer segment more likely to have children. That links the trend to Gen Y, and may indicate a connection to concerns about allergies and tolerances, he said. These facts make it harder to predict the course of gluten-free momentum.

Read more: Retailers Debate Merchandising Gluten-Free Products

Ah, that does make it clearer. So back to the basic question, is it a short-lived or more sustainable phenomenon?

“The jury is still out on whether it’s a fad or a trend,” he said.

So if it will be awhile until we know, is there anything the industry can do to take advantage in the meantime?

Lynn Dornblaser, director, innovation and insight, Mintel Group, another panelist at the ABA event, told me she believes gluten-free “will fade some in the next year or two,” while remaining important for those with a medical need.

She said companies exploring a product entry need to move quickly because it’s going to peak eventually.

SN Poll Results: Most Bakeries Offer Gluten-Free

“The real opportunity is if anyone can make a great-tasting, gluten-free product that is priced similarly to their gluten-containing counterparts,” she said.

That’s good advice as we watch the trend lines and try to make sense of seemingly confusing developments.

Lynn makes a good point, and here’s a final thought about consumer behavior. It seems that health is the long-term consumer trend, but how consumers define this may change over time. That’s why gluten-free or any other direction can fall in or out of favor, and needs to be closely tracked.

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David Orgel

David Orgel is executive director, content & user engagement, of Supermarket News (SN) and its website, SupermarketNews.com. Orgel delivers his opinions on industry trends through a bi-weekly...

Jon Springer

Jon Springer has been writing about food, food retailers and food retailing for more than 10 years, and is in his second tour of duty with Supermarket News. His prior experience includes covering the...
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