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Why gluten free is not a dying trend

Experts who proclaim that the gluten-free food market is a short-term fad fundamentally misunderstand the nature and numbers of gluten free.

Is anyone else in the gluten-free community getting tired of this debate?

As reported by Food Navigator this week, Elizabeth Sloan, PhD, president of Sloan Trends, said at a recent conference that “this gluten-free trend does not have long-term legs.” She cites a Hartman Group stat that “only 22 percent of consumers buy gluten free products intentionally because they are gluten free,” and opines that the current boom in the gluten-free market is out of proportion to the number of Americans that require gluten-free foods.

“[Gluten free] is a very good and very strong market,” she says, “but right now it’s out of proportion. It may continue to grow for the next two or three years, but in the long term, you really need to think about that.”

She’s wrong. And you only need to look at the numbers to see why.

Why gluten free isn't going away

Let’s get this straight, with info from The University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research (UMCCR), the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), and the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG).

  • Currently 1 in 133 Americans is estimated to have celiac disease; that means about 3 million people across all ages and races.
     
  • According to NFCA, 95 percent of these people are currently undiagnosed. That means 2,850,000 people still don’t know they need to go completely gluten free.
     
  • NFCA estimates that the diagnosis rate may reach 50 to 60 percent by 2019, thanks to increased awareness. Note that still leaves a solid 30 percent or more who likely won’t be diagnosed by then.
     
  • UMCCR research indicates that about 18 million more people, or 6 percent of the U.S. population, have gluten intolerance or sensitivity—making it the most undiagnosed disorder in the country. For every 1 person diagnosed with gluten intolerance, 80 people remain undiagnosed, according to GIG. Symptoms are not trivial (this isn’t about losing weight or vague “healthier eating”); they can range from chronic gastrointestinal upset to migraines, joint pain, infertility, depression, osteoporosis, and mental fogginess.
     
  • There is no cure for celiac disease or gluten intolerance/sensitivity. The only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.

Two years ago, another “trend expert” predicted that the gluten-free market would collapse “like a house of cards.” But sales reached $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 (a 30 percent growth from 2006), jumped 23 percent to $3.4 billion in 2011, and are now expected to surpass $5 billion by 2015.

Gluten free's not a fad

When all those as-yet-undiagnosed millions trace their symptoms to gluten, they’ll be buying gluten-free foods. In addition to that fact, gradually decreasing prices, better tasting and more nutritious gluten-free products, and increased adoption of naturally gluten-free, plant-based foods (whole-grain rice, quinoa, vegetables, nuts, etc.) mean that the category will remain strong, permanently.

Sure, the market growth won’t continue forever at the current astronomical rate, but, like organic, it will continue; and because it’s a lifelong commitment, all those buyers are here to stay. 

What do you think? Is gluten free going to last, or not?

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