A decade ago, few Americans had heard of gluten. Today, one survey says, almost a third are trying to avoid the element found in grain. In growing numbers, the world’s biggest food makers and restaurant chains are retooling recipes and labels to tap into the concern, creating a multibillion-dollar business out of gluten-free products.
The trend caught the eye of Heather Nutsch, an oncology researcher in Omaha, Neb., who has struggled with her weight for years. In February, she decided to try a gluten-free diet after a friend said it helped her lose weight. “Gluten-free is everywhere,” she said.
Yet gluten-free lovers of the world may be in for a surprise. Many health experts say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free except for a small sliver of the population whose bodies can’t process the protein. Indeed, according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar. It is a point some food makers don’t dispute, saying they are simply responding to consumer demand without making health claims.
“I have no idea,” said Donnie Smith, the CEO of Tyson Foods Inc., when asked if gluten-free was healthier for most people. The food giant last year rolled out gluten-free chicken nuggets, lunch meat and even bacon.
Americans have become preoccupied with what they eat on a whole new level, focusing on scouting out healthy foods while packing eating into ever more hectic schedules. The desire to eat better, combined with food companies pursuing new chances for growth, has created a cycle of influence that is increasingly hypercharged by the Internet. The result is a cacophony of competing claims and convictions about how we eat that can bewilder consumers as much as it liberates them.
A spate of books and documentaries in the past decade has fueled suspicion of the food industry—from the ingredients companies use to how they treat farmland and animals. First lady Michelle Obama has made healthier eating her central cause. Social media accelerate the spread of new-food trends and ideas: Facebook has more than 1,000 groups with “gluten free” in the name, including a dating group called “Gluten-free singles.”
In response, companies have churned out a proliferation of new foods and eating initiatives, turning what once might have been isolated fads into big new product categories. Research firm Nielsen lists more than 75 health and wellness claims that food manufacturers place on the front of food packages. Longtime dietary labels like low fat and low sugar have been joined by “low carb,” “all-natural,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” “dairy-free,” “probiotic,” and “hormone free,” among others.
But critics say some of these labels can be misleading. Trans fat-free labels are showing up on products like milk, for example, which critics say suggests a better product even though milk never contained the artificial kind of trans fats that clog arteries. “Real cane sugar” and agave nectar are now popular on labels too, but academic studies show those ingredients have the same deleterious effects as high-fructose corn syrup (syrup makers dispute those effects). Sales of products labeled free of high-fructose corn syrup have jumped 45% in the past four years, to $921 million, according to Nielsen.
Numerous food companies are removing the word “natural” from their products as lawsuits have challenged the meaning of the term. PepsiCo Inc., while saying it wasn’t wrong to use “natural,” said it would remove it from its Naked juice until there is more regulatory guidance on the term’s definition. Barbara’s Bakery, the maker of Puffins cereal, once applied the “natural” label to products free of artificial preservatives, flavors, colors and ingredients but said it now believes the term is “vague and confusing.” Still, sales of products labeled “natural” have grown 37% since 2010 to more than $43 billion, according to Nielsen.
Sometimes a single product carries multiple claims. KeVita is a sparkling probiotic drink that describes itself as organic, nondairy, non-GMO, gluten-free and vegan. Bill Lange, vice president of marketing for KeVita Inc., says the company is simply trying to avoid any vague, general descriptor. “We know the importance of differentiating between claims and true product attributes,” he said.
For food companies, the new categories offer a chance to tap into consumer excitement at a time when overall sales growth for packaged-food makers and restaurant chains is lackluster. The products they push in turn spur greater consumer interest in new food categories. Another benefit: Although they can cost more to produce, food companies are charging as much as double for some “better-for-you” products, maintaining profit margins similar to their traditional products, if not slightly higher, says retail consultancy Willard Bishop.
To be sure, experts say the health food options have had a positive impact on the American diet. Calorie consumption peaked a decade ago, and adults had reduced their daily intake by an average of 118 calories in 2009 and 2010 compared with four years prior, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Average consumption of added sugars also has begun to ebb as consumers have reduced their soda intake.
But we still eat an average of 459 more calories a day than we did 40 years ago. More than a third of adults in the U.S. are obese, a rate that has remained unchanged in the past decade. Twenty-nine million U.S. adults aged 20 or older have diabetes, up from 26 million in 2010, according to the latest government data. Some health experts say the multitude of options is part of the problem.
“Food corporations have figured out how to adapt their foods to become solutions to health problems and at the same time capitalize on the confusion itself,” said food historian Abigail Carroll, author of “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.”
Nowhere has the chaotic cycle of influence between U.S. consumers and food companies been more pronounced than in the gluten-free craze. Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye—three of the earliest crops domesticated by humans in the Fertile Crescent some 10,000 years ago. Its elastic structure makes it well-suited for baking, but triggers an autoimmune response in a small number of people that damages their intestines.
About two million to three million Americans, less than 1% of the population, suffer from that hereditary condition, known as celiac disease. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness says research shows another 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, experiencing discomfort without the intestinal damage.
Gluten-free foods began gaining wider currency as better diagnostic tests were developed for celiac disease, making more people aware that they had it and needed to adjust their diet. In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration proposed labeling rules defining how much gluten could be in products labeled gluten-free, amplifying interest further.
Some doctors began suggesting eliminating gluten from patients’ diets to address mysterious maladies. Celebrities began jumping on the bandwagon, touting it as a way to lose weight and boost energy. In the course of a few years, the mold was set: Today, gluten-free products can be found in every traditional supermarket and mass retailer, including specialty brands and established names like Tyson and General Mills Inc. There’s even gluten-free dog food. Global retail sales of products specifically formulated to be gluten-free have nearly doubled since 2007 to $2.1 billion last year, according to Euromonitor International.
Food producers targeting the surging appetite for gluten-free also have slapped the label on items that never included wheat, barley, and rye—from Green Giant vegetables to Chobani Greek yogurt. So U.S. sales of products labeled gluten-free—whether or not they ever contained gluten—have exploded even faster: doubling to $23 billion in the past year from $11.5 billion four years ago, according to Nielsen. While gluten-free products cost more than others, prices have come down, adding to their popularity.
General Mills said it began noticing a spike in consumer interest in gluten free after the FDA’s labeling proposal. A Research and Development executive for its Chex cereal brand, himself then on a gluten-free diet, suggested reformulating Chex, and by 2008, the company was marketing its gluten-free Rice Chex cereal as the first mainstream gluten-free cereal in the U.S. Sales of Chex, which had been declining, have posted double-digit sales growth each fiscal year since.
“The early success we saw with our Chex brand bred additional product reformulations,” said Rebecca Thompson, the General Mills marketing manager then in charge of gluten-free initiatives. Today, the company sells more than 600 different products labeled gluten-free—including more than 10 products it has formulated to take gluten out, from Betty Crocker brownie mix to Pillsbury pizza crust—and hundreds more never-glutenous products that it labeled gluten-free.
In most cases, removing gluten from baked goods, noodles and other products is difficult. Wheat substitutes don’t retain fat or hold their structure as well, and many taste lousy. Noodles & Co. spent years testing dozens of gluten-free noodles “but they all tasted like cardboard or fell apart,” said Dan Fogarty, executive vice president at the chain of 380 restaurants. The chain finally decided on one made in Italy, which it now offers as a substitute in its dishes.
Ms. Carroll, the food historian, said the food makers’ response to the gluten-free demand echoes what happened when the federal government in the late 1970s issued dietary guidelines calling on Americans to consume less fat. Food companies responded with a number of low-fat products that often contained more sugar, and the same number of calories as other products.
“Everyone thought they were healthy so people ate more of those foods and ended up gaining weight,” said Ms. Carroll. “Fat consumption went down and obesity rose at the same time in the 1980s.”
Health experts agree that not all gluten-free products are loaded with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. Some gluten-free products are nutritionally the same or better on some levels than their gluten-containing counterparts. The nutritional composition of Chex cereal, for example, didn’t change when General Mills removed the gluten.
But despite trumpeting the products, most food industry executives concede that a gluten-free diet is best followed by those who have a medical need. A spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food industry’s trade group, said that within the gluten-free category, there is a wide variety of products with varying nutritional compositions. “Consumers are encouraged to use the information on the food label to make informed decisions,” the spokesman said.
A serving of Glutino’s gluten-free apple and cinnamon cereal is listed as containing no calcium, iron or Vitamins A or C while the same-size serving of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios contains 10% of the recommended dietary allowance of both Vitamins A and C, 10% of calcium, 25% of iron and a host of other vitamins and minerals, including folic acid.
General Mills’ gluten-free Bisquick pancake and baking mix has fewer calories and sodium than the original version but contains 3 grams of sugar versus the original version’s 1 gram. And while the original Bisquick contains iron, folic acid and certain B vitamins, the gluten-free version doesn’t.
A General Mills spokeswoman said that while wheat flour is typically enriched with vitamins and minerals, many of the specialty flours used in gluten-free products aren’t. “Following a gluten-free diet is advised for the percentage of the population with celiac disease,” the spokeswoman said. “We leave the ultimate choice with the consumer.”
A spokeswoman for Boulder Brands Inc. ‘s Glutino, one of the largest makers of gluten-free products, said the brand had initially focused on ensuring its gluten-free products taste good and that it plans to work on improving the nutritional profile of its products.
Many nutritionists say their biggest concern centers on the plethora of gluten-free snacks and desserts that exists today. “Ten years ago a gluten-free diet would have helped you lose weight because you’d have cut out a lot of products like muffins and bread,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. “The gluten-free fad has actually undermined people’s health because now there are gluten-free varieties of all that junk food. Whether your doughnut is gluten-free or not, it’s still a doughnut.”
For now, interest in gluten-free remains strong—though there are signs that may have peaked. The share of survey respondents saying they are trying to avoid gluten was 29.4% in May, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc. That is down from a peak of more than 30% late last year, but higher than the 25.5% measured four years ago.
Becca Walker, a geology professor in Los Angeles, is one fan. She says she was having gastrointestinal symptoms and general sluggishness about three years ago. Although she didn’t seek a medical diagnosis, she says her energy level increased, her abdominal discomfort subsided, and she has lost five to 10 pounds. “I feel better so I don’t care why,” Ms. Walker said.
Ms. Nutsch, the cancer researcher, said she followed a daily gluten-free regimen for two weeks, and did lose a couple of pounds. But she said she also never felt full and, bored of eating the same thing every day, quit after two weeks. “I did notice a difference in how my body felt,” she said. “But I don’t know if it was because it was gluten-free or because I was making fresh food every day.”