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Consumer Trend in Self-Diagnosis: The Gluten-Free Conundrum
Gluten is back in the news—again. Frankly, we’re a bit baffled as to why this topic continues to make headlines. That American consumers spend billions annually on gluten-free products is newsworthy, but the jury is out on whether or not the consumers buying these products really need them.

In other words, we believe there is a whole lot of self-diagnosing going on out there.

What we are witnessing in the consumer preoccupation with gluten-free is indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon in consumer self-diagnosis and treatment. Consumer self-diagnosis of perceived ailments and allergies has paved the way for billions of dollars in sales of products with “no/low” formulations, as well as those offering enhanced or modified ingredient profiles.

Oops sign We know from our own ongoing immersive research into consumers’ health and wellness lifestyles and behaviors that historically consumers often see prescription drugs as a last treatment resort and today’s consumers are more likely to be treating self-diagnosed moods and emotional states with their diet (e.g., foods and beverages) rather than turning to medications.

Self-diagnosis and resulting self-treatment is actually a fountain from which flow the first drops of emerging trends and fads. From this perspective, it exists as an important harbinger of "things to come" for food producers and retailers alike.

The process to detect which emerging trends that lurk on the edges of culture have mainstream potential can be a proverbial gold mine to innovative marketers. The key will be in knowing which will have direct influence on consumption.

Whether or not self-diagnosed ailments, allergies or intolerances in fact have any physiological basis is largely irrelevant to most consumers. What is important for the near term is that such diagnoses are most assuredly driving daily behavior — for the afflicted consumer(s) as well as their household, and this includes not just self-diagnosed physiological symptoms (e.g., allergies to gluten or dairy) but emotional or cognitive symptoms (e.g., depression).

Consider how, back in the late 1990s, the low-carb diet "took off" and Dr. Atkins became a household name. A large part of the diet's success lay in consumer self-diagnosis of weight gain due to over-consumption of carbohydrates—an easy assumption for individuals used to a diet heavy in sugars and carbohydrate-laden breads, pastas, grains, cereals and baked goods.

Food manufacturers were quick to cash in on the low-carb “trend” and rolled out food and beverage product solutions to meet demand. Yet, just as products reached supermarket shelves, cultural interest in the Atkins diet waned due to rising concerns about the true healthfulness of a diet consisting mainly of dairy and protein (e.g., red meat). Soon enough, the trend faded.

We may also recall the enormous rise in popularity of taking vitamins, minerals, herbs and supplements (VMHS) that were an integral element of the early days of a burgeoning wellness marketplace in the 1990s. That was when Dr. Weil, organics and alternative medicine became household names. American consumers were on a quest to improve their physical, mental and spiritual health through self-exploration of their diet, nutrition, ingredients and other lifestyle behaviors.

This tinkering with personal health is at the heart of self-diagnosis and what we see occurring in the boom in the gluten-free trend is ever indicative of this larger cultural behavior.

Trends grounded in consumer self-diagnosis are not without consequence and a word of caution is required.

Gluten Free pie chart There is a growing propensity among consumers to listen to members of their close social network, study health issues and indications on the Internet, and begin to assume that ongoing headaches and stomach pains can only be explained by sensitivities to gluten (or MSG or food dyes or perhaps dairy products). Such diagnoses are largely undertaken without consultation of a medical professional or the appropriate medical tests. They just fit neatly within the realm of self-diagnosis and self-treatment that consumers strongly adhere to.

And, to further confuse the issue, just because consumers may purchase gluten-free products doesn’t mean they stick to a strict gluten-free diet. As the Figure on the right illustrates, only a small percentage of U.S. consumers consistently adhere to a gluten-free diet.

Confusion in the Bakery Aisle

Perhaps no category has felt the effects of the gluten-free trend more than baked goods. Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, the parent company of Canada Bread, talked at length in an August 2, 2012 article in Food Business News on factors affecting the company’s fresh and frozen bakery business, a part of which has been a softer market for sales of bread products.

Referring to gluten-free as a “very specific dietary concern,” Mr. McCain said, “…there is a high level of confusion as it relates to the role that gluten and carbohydrates play in the diet amongst consumers.”

We would echo those sentiments.

Whether more consumers will gravitate toward gluten-free products for their “functional, better-for-me” self-believed benefits in the long term is anyone best guess. While the current trend line would suggest “yes,” we know that ultimately the fate of the gluten-free category is in the hands of consumers.

The impact of consumer self-diagnosis and its relation to demand for gluten-free products highlight the importance of reading incoming vibrations from the edges of consumer culture—particularly food culture.

As confusing as the gluten-free trend may seem to industry insiders, consumers are equally mysterious. Consumers will always reconfigure categories based on attitudes, behaviors and aspirations that have very little do with fact or logic.

The key is to be able to separate trends from fads and bend culture at the moment it is changing to be able to develop innovative products that meet the quality criteria (e.g., taste, appearance, perceived benefits) that consumers seek within the constantly changing world of health and wellness.

As for gluten-free, we’re in the field as we write to get fresh data and insights on where consumers are and where they’re heading. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the update.

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