From Niches to Riches: The Rise of the Gluten-Free Market

Labeled second on TIME Magazine’s Top 10 food trends in 2012, the gluten-free movement has officially dominated the American food industry. The popularity of going gluten-free has spawned a lucrative market for new and established food manufacturers that benefit from the larger profit margins associated with a specialty food status. Oddly, though, consumers with celiac disease aren’t the only ones paying the premiums. Shoppers with perceived gluten-sensitivities and others who believe gluten-free diets provide health benefits are also purchasing the specially-labeled foods. While the movement has been profitable for manufacturers, its rise has been reinforcing the ideology of healthism with roots in neo-liberal policies to create markets where they didn’t previously exist by shifting health care responsibility to the individual, according to University of California Food Politics professor Julie Guthman.

Confusion surrounding gluten

True celiac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease caused by various genetic predispositions that affect 1 percent of the world’s population. Those with celiac disease risk intestinal damage, cancer, osteoporosis, anemia and malnutrition when they ingest gliadin, the toxic component of gluten. People who consider themselves “gluten-sensitive” or believe they have wheat allergies, however, do not suffer from intestinal damage, though they may experience gastrointestinal problems, headaches, fatigue or allergy symptoms after consuming breads. About 6 percent of the world’s population is believed to suffer from this “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” according to New York Times writer Stephanie Strom.

A 2013 study conducted by the American Journal of Gastroenterology gave some insight into why some people without celiac disease experience discomfort after ingesting gluten. The study unearthed a different culprit behind the bloating and pain previously blamed on gluten by discovering that subjects put on diets with few Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols (FODMAPs) experienced fewer gastrointestinal symptoms than those placed on gluten-free diets.

In short, the problem is that many people believe themselves to be gluten-intolerant though they should actually avoid consuming FODMAPs. Confusion remains rampant, however, because many foods like breads and pastas contain both. By avoiding those foods, many wrongly assume that avoiding gluten is giving them relief. According to Jessica Biesiekierski’s 2013 article published in Gastroenterology, gluten-free diets are only necessary for people with actual celiac disease.

History of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease didn’t arise as a public health problem in the United States until 2003 as experts and doctors didn’t believe it was a problem. Even as late as 1999, a medical textbook estimated only 1 in 10,000 Americans had celiac disease. In 2003, Dr. Allesio Fasano, the director of the Center for Celiac Research, published a study that found one in 133 people had celiac disease. Until this study, gluten-free foods were nearly impossible to find and the existing options were barely palatable. Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times asserted that the rise in specialty food manufacturing grew parallel to increasing medical recognition of the disease and suggestion for patients to follow gluten-free diets.

Now, celiac disease is four times more common than it was 60 years ago. Despite its increased prevalence, consumers with celiac disease only account for a small percentage of gluten-free consumers. The Packaged Facts market research firm estimates this figure to be around seven percent. Before the American Journal of Gastroenterology conducted their 2013 study citing FODMAPs and not gluten as the cause of celiac-like symptoms, their 2011 research inaccurately promoted a substantial existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. By the time they published findings disproving earlier analyses, it was too late. The 2011 study had already fueled widespread inaccuracy and the explosion of the gluten-free market.

Health aspect of gluten-free diets

In 2011, USDA Agricultural Economist Stephen Martinez acknowledged that many perceive a gluten-free diet to be extremely healthy and helpful in weight management. In response to celebrity and sport athlete endorsements, Pamela Cureton, a dietitian at the Center for Celiac Research, warned that “there is no evidence that gluten is harmful in healthy people without a gluten-related disease…[or] that a gluten-free diet will increase sports performance.” Amanda Topper, a food analyst at Mintel agreed stated that she found it “really interesting […] that consumers think gluten-free foods are healthier and can help them lose weight because there’s been no research affirming these beliefs” and that this false assumption “ is a major driver for the market, as interest expands across both gluten-sensitive and health-conscious consumers.” Director of Tufts’ HNRCA Energy Metabolism Laboratory Susan Roberts also cautioned against the assumption that gluten-free diets promote weight loss by citing any lost weight to an overall scarcity of gluten-free options.