That’s the question posed by a very interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal.The article is behind the Journal’s rather pesky pay wall, however its thesis is a fairly simple one, summarized in this paragraph here:
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.
Exactly. It’s estimated that there are between two and three million celiac disease sufferers in the US. For these unfortunate souls a gluten-free diet is a must, and indeed many of today’s gluten-free products are a godsend both to them and their families. For the rest of us the benefits of a gluten-free diet are nebulous at best, non-existent — even detrimental — at worst. So how did we get where we are today: with gluten-free the biggest dietary craze since transfats bit the dust five years ago? The Journal sheds a little light on that as well:
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 companies? Making money producing products consumers want? Will no one do something about this outrage?
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.
File this under duh. Food companies spend huge sums trying to stay on top of food trends, and then developing, producing and distributing niche products that appear to match consumer demands. The vast majority of the time these efforts to “push” trendy products on consumers fail — miserably. Though we shoppers barely notice it, some 20,000 new food products show up on store shelves every year. 80% of those fail outright. Many, many more go out of production in subsequent months and years as the fads that gave birth to them fade. It’s an expensive proposition indeed, which is why niche products — healthy or not — almost always cost more.
I write this not to try to gin up sympathy for food packagers, but rather to underscore where food crazes originate: with us. If the hive mind of American consumers — egged on by a few small-scale university studies, a couple of celebrity endorsements and maybe a book — decide that “blue” is the next big thing in food, I promise it won’t take long before the color of your Wheaties box changes (then changes again a year later when a competing study reveals that yellow is actually healthier for you as colors go). There’s little the folks at General Mills won’t do to help sell cereal.
When will all the craziness stop? Quite simply, when we stop being crazy. When we consumers decide for ourselves what makes a healthy diet, and then — barring sound advice to the contrary from qualified physicians we know and trust — live by the decisions we make. Rant over. On to the day!