What Does the Box Say? – Comparing Gluten-Free and Non-Gluten-Free marketing claims

We’ve all heard statements like these about gluten-free food: “The gluten-free products market is experiencing a double-digit growth” and “They are considered healthier than conventional products (source: PRWeb.com).

It’s become a truism that manufacturers make gluten-free products to cater to the “fad,” rather than to help those of us with gluten-related disorders (GRDs). According to this perspective, gluten-free, like organicall natural, and wholesome, is just another buzzword. 

Marketers seek to draw in people without GRDs who are health-conscious enough to buy a product they think is better for them, but not enough to realize it isn’t, really. (The same thing might be coming for “kosher.”) Marketing research, as presented in this report—the complete version of which sells for an astonishing $3,995.00—backs up this idea that “health perceptions fuel [the gluten-free] category growth.”

Is it true? Just who do marketers think gluten-free consumers are, and what do they think we want? Are GF labels crammed full of more health claims than other products? Are they feeding us all the nonsensical health claims they think we’ll swallow?

To answer these questions for myself, I did some amateur market research, looking at what marketers are putting in their gluten-free (GF) product descriptions and their non-gluten-free (NGF) product descriptions. Then, I created tag clouds showing the most common words and phrases for each:

Looking these over, I’m come up with some conclusions of my own. I’d love to hear what stands out to you, too!

The method to my madness:

  • I researched descriptions of both gluten-free (GF) and non-gluten-free (NGF) products. Note that the sample size is small—just under 60 products in each category—and that I used copy from manufacturers’ websites, rather than package labels themselves, because I’m lazy. Pay me $3,995 and I will redo it. For a full list of the products I included, click here.
  • I looked only at brands with exact gluten-free and non-gluten-free equivalents. (Thanks to Sprue Jr. for this smart idea.) I left out things like Goldfish Puffs (which are yummy, but more like Cheetos than Goldfish), Nabisco Rice Thins (which I really hope aren’t meant to imitate Wheat Thins), and Chex (even though it’s the classic mainstream-product-gone-GF; wheat, rice, and corn Chex are just too different).
  • I created the word clouds using tagcrowd.com. A word or phrase had to appear 4 times across all descriptions in a category to make the cut. The NGF cloud is smaller than the GF cloud because fewer words were repeated often enough.
  • At 33 mentions each, the outliers “gluten free” and “gluten-free” (who knew the food industry was so divided on the hyphenation question?) were taking over the whole GF picture, so I removed them.

A few general observations:

As a vegetarian, I had no idea till doing this just how many brands of GF breaded chicken products exist. Mind. Blown. You’d think someone could take a break from dinosaur-shaped extruded meat to manufacture some GF phyllo dough.

Some classic, mass-market products reproduced in gluten-free versions are presented with almost identical product descriptions, distinguished only by the addition of “Now available gluten-free!” In other cases, the gluten-free product information is considerably longer, taking great pains to explain a) why a gluten-free version was created, b) what steps have been taken to ensure the product is gluten-free, or c) both. The NGF versions were very rarely longer, probably because we already know those foods rock.

Many food manufacturers making GF products were already focused on whole grains, organics, etc., which in my opinion partially contradicts the claim that everyone’s getting into the GF game to make money. These are companies that already cared about health and want to include former customers, now gone GF. Whether their products really are good for us is another question.

Poptarts aisle

Poptarts: not yet gluten-free, or healthy.
Photo © MTSOfan | Flickr

Now, on to specific claims:

GF food tastes good, kinda.

To give the GF labelers credit, many of them call their products “treats.” They promise that “everyone” will “enjoy” or even “love” their foods’ “delicious” “flavor,” “taste,” and “texture” (on the last point, they may protest too much—the word doesn’t appear in the NGF cloud, because it doesn’t have to).

“Best” and “favorite” make the cut for GF (but not NGF) foods, though they’re slightly more wary about claiming to be “classic” or “traditional” (several GF products went for “unique,” instead, which could mean anything). NGF foods are apparently “easier” and more “fun” than GF ones, but then, we already knew that.

GF foods are good for you, kinda.

First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how silly it is that health claims like “all natural” are so prominent in both sets of product descriptions, considering that every one of them comes in a package, box, or bag. A recent comment by a reader, John, sums up my feelings on this topic better than I could myself, so check it out.

So, GF and NGF foods are about equally likely to call themselves “healthy,” though the GF foods throw in a few “health”s for good measure. GF products are way less likely to be “organic,” and also less likely to claim to be “all natural” (or even partly “natural”) or to avoid “fillers” and “preservatives.”

On the subject of “fats” and “trans fats,” as well as specific “grams” per serving of the good stuff, the GF products are silent compared with their NGF counterparts, though not necessarily because they’re worse. (This has been discussed here and here.)

With nearly as much frequency as NGF products, GF products reference “whole grains,” but the oversized “brown rice” tag signals that’s the primary whole grain being used; too bad, because it’s lower in several nutrients than the whole wheat that dominates in NGF foods.

Neither set of products makes many caloric claims, probably because these terms are closely regulated so pizzas, cookies, and pretzels can’t get away with claiming to be low-cal. Only the GF products admit to being “sweetened” (though the NGF ones are, too!).

GF foods are gluten-free, kinda.

A fair number of the GF products point out their “certified” status and make explicit claims about the safety of their “ingredients” and “dedicated” “facility” where “products” were “produced.” A handful even reference “celiac disease”—yay!

Others, though, are mentioning their facilities and so on to warn us that they aren’t dedicated. So take this one with a grain of salt, produced in a gluten-free facility.

GF foods are far more likely than NGF foods to mention freedom from allergens such as eggs and dairy (and wheat, mentioned more on products where it’s not than where it is). I don’t mind manufacturers killing two (or more) “allergies” with one stone; in an age of multiple allergies, it’s a smart move.

produce aisle

Where are the labels? Are these healthy? Gluten-free? Who knows?!
Photo © I-5 Design & Manufacture | Flickr


At least in this sample, the GF foods don’t seem to trumpet health more than their NGF counterparts, other than freedom-from claims. I was also surprised not to find the words “crave” or “craving” in the GF cloud, since that’s the essential function of these foods: to satisfy that yawning hole left in all of us by the Oreos, pizzas, birthday cakes, and chicken nuggets of yesterday.

Which similarities and differences surprised you? Are any words missing that you’d have expected to see? Do you buy gluten-free food products, and if so, what do you look for on the package labels?

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20 thoughts on “What Does the Box Say? – Comparing Gluten-Free and Non-Gluten-Free marketing claims

  1. SStitches says:

    In NI, we have such a dearth of proper GF foods that I was fascinated to read what you found. Our Free From shelves are two loaves of small, hard bread, a few packages of maize penne, and all the dry cookies, cakes, and pie substitutions you could ever want. Nothing could claim to be healthy. I will say that we just got Udi’s foods over here, so the options are looking up for processed GF foods — and they even brought a Pop Tart analogue with them!

    • Molly says:

      I was really surprised to see just how much was out there (and, again, I left out a ton of foods just because the manufacturer doesn’t produce them in both gluten-free and non-gluten-free form). The full list of what I did include is here.

      I’m glad you’ve got Udi’s now, at least! Yay for Pop Tart tastealikes. 🙂 Hope that matters continue to improve.

  2. lisamims says:

    What I really, really wish they would do, is test for hordein (barley gluten) and avenin (oat gluten). Apparently, they don’t. Gluten-free just means, “no gliadin,” which is wheat.

    That’s how Chex can market themselves as gluten-free (and give celiacs a really difficult time), when they have a ton of barley malt in their, “shared facility,” cereal. It’s how Rice Dream markets themselves as, “gluten-free rice milk,” when the label on the back clearly says, “made with barley.” It’s also how Bob’s Red Mill is gluten-free–they don’t test for avenin (oats) in their gluten-free products, and if you’re in the 10% or so of celiacs that can’t eat oats, most of this stuff is not gluten-free.

    I just wish the labels were more specific. I keep getting glutened from people feeding me,” gluten-free oats.”

    I also think that shared facilities aren’t so bad–if all they make is, say, almonds, then you’re just risking gliadin cross-contamination, not cross-contamination from barley and oats. (Which they don’t have to test for to be, “certified gluten-free,” anyway.)

    • Molly says:

      This is really interesting, Lisa. A year in I still haven’t felt confident trialing oats, so I don’t know if I’m sensitive to them or not, but I do eat certified GF grains—a lot of them, honestly, given that I’m a vegetarian.

      I guess you CAN be vegetarian without eating lots of grains, but then you end up eating lots of beans and soy, which come with their own digestive troubles…

      Still, I’ve been considering cutting grains and trying the “cross-contamination elimination” program that had such good results in nonresponsive celiac patients, but I’m scared. And don’t want to eat meat. Yeesh, this stuff is hard!

  3. Laura says:

    Glutino has a pop-tart equivalent, not exactly health food. The deal on processed food is that it just not going to be a health and nutrition parade. That is the price of convenience. I live in a food-mecca and still spend a fortune on having things shipped to me. Is NI Northern Ireland? And here I thought Ireland was one of those GF friendly countries where you could buy GF bread everywhere…such are the delusions perpetrated by the internet…

    • Molly says:

      I think I’ve tried that equivalent at one expo or another. Not super memorable, but then, I never liked Pop Tarts all that much…doncha just hate having your illusions about magical worlds of GF awesomeness shattered like that? It happened to me when I met someone from London, who said that New York was way better. For some reason I thought the UK in general was supposed to be pretty good.

  4. Dang Molly…major kudos on the effort. Like most industries, there are some companies who truly care about the consumer. And then there are far too many who care about the money in their pockets a lot more. We just need to decipher which ones are on our side.

    • Molly says:

      Thanks! I’ve been very, very slowly working on it for a while. Lots of copying and pasting. I was honestly surprised by the “results” not painting an especially cynical picture, but again, many of these are from brands already committed to pretty high standards from the standpoint of health and ethics.

  5. liwinelyst says:

    I read all the ingredient lists. I’m always looking for products without chemicals, gums, starches, sweeteners, etc. Clean eating gf foods are hard to find. I’ve only found a few and none of them are bread.

    • Molly says:

      Any that you would recommend? I do the same—try to steer clear of packaged goods mostly, though I’ve been “bad” recently. (I don’t really think that’s a good way to frame it—good vs. bad—but it works as a shorthand.)

      • liwinelyst says:

        I like Mary’s Gone Crackers. They have pretzels, too. I also like Ancient Harvest corn-quinoa pasta. I tend to eat alot of brown rice and quinoa flakes (I make a stuffing out of it or add goat cheese and use it like grits). I also like the Larabar cashew cookie (just cashews and dates).

      • John says:

        Interesting project you undertook here. I noticed there weren’t any wrap products in your data set but I’m not sure if this is because you weren’t aware of a good GF/NGF comparison pair or if you were just too constrained by real life and wanted to keep the amount of data accordingly manageable. So… just an observation, not a criticism, on a very commendable effort.

        I never ate wraps very often in my pre-GF life, though from what I recall, NGF wraps are bad enough in terms of falling apart upon closing them up and trying to eat them but the GF ones are often worse. Rice-made wraps often crack apart before you even get them home if they get folded up too much in the bag among your other items. And like bread GF wraps are often smaller than their NGF counterparts.

        The only full size GF wrap I’ve seen so far that overcomes all this is from La Tortilla Factory based in N. Calif. While their line of wraps is almost entirely of the NGF variety, they do have this GF one that is also GFCO-certified:

        http://www.latortillafactory.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Gluten-Free-Wheat-Free-Wraps-Lo.png (Don’t ask about the stalks of wheat in this photo! I think they just used this same background set-up to snap all the wraps in their line and simply didn’t think to remove it for this one. I’ve already emailed them and suggested a re-take.)

        What sets this LTF GF wrap apart from others I’ve tried is that its flours are not rice or corn but rather tapioca, teff and millet, in this order of relative abundance. They trumpet the teff most prominently on the front of the packaging and talk up the history and nutrition of this ancient African grain on the back. It’s sturdier than a rice wrap: no breakages yet after several purchases so far. The packaging also mentions microwaving to heat them but I don’t recommend this — I’ve found this dries them out, tough to bend them without cracking. My favoured heating method is toaster oven, completely wrapped in foil to seal in the moisture (gets dry and fragile otherwise). Always comes out soft and pliable. After adding fillings and closing it up you can re-use the foil to cover it again if you like, to help keep it in one piece, tearing away the foil in small pieces as you eat.

        I suppose wraps are processed foods and I know I went on a rant over that a little while ago, but at least you can add your own fresh, wholesome ingredients to them and thus assuage your guilt, sort of. And for this LTF wrap, I don’t feel like I’m eating a “substitute” food that’s trying to mimic something NGF, like those horrid GF white rice breads. It eats like a “proper” food in its own right that could have existed long before GF became trendy. On a purely aesthetic level, this is something I like to see in GF foods.

        I’ve been hearing some good things about teff but I rarely see any products made from it aside from these wraps. I’ve seen teff grains and teff flour in some stores but the teff recipes I’ve found online all look kind of busy for my kitchen skill level. By this I mean that I don’t own a blender, nor did I ever even once buy a bag of flour of any description in my entire life before having to go GF last year!

  6. Vicky says:

    I don’t tend to buy gluten free prepared cakes etc but I do buy the bread occasionally and I’m always on the look out for the fewest ingredients possible and ingredients that I actually would’ve recognised before being GF!

    On the whole I would say that the GF foods are equally as bad as the non GF foods! I do occasionally eat pre-prepared cakes if I’m reviewing them or someone kindly buys them for me and sometmes I’m surprised that they are actually nice! There’s one company in the UK called Honey Buns and their cakes are amazing – better than their GF buddies.

    As usual there are always companies hoping to profit and profit they do! The prices they charge are phenomenal.

    Great article – as usual!

    • Molly says:

      Thanks, Vicky! I agree with you that the state of the packaged food industry in general is a bit of a mess. I’ll have to get my hands on some Honey Buns sometime when I’m traipsing about the globe. That’s going to happen…soon…I hope. 🙂

      • Vicky says:

        Exciting!!! If you happen to visit Whole Foods Market in London they have them there! Lol – choose the caramel slice if you get a chance!!

  7. Hey Molly, you worked hard on this post! I love the word “embiggen” – which I don’t think is a real word, but maybe it should be.

    We look for GF and scour ingredient lists on labels. I am careful to keep an eye out for allergen info, too, as “wheat” has to be listed. However, things like barley/malt and oats (not GF) can be sneaky, so you have to read carefully. We DO eat made in a facility, which I know is controversial, but our dr’s at the celiac center say it’s okay… I try not to do too much of that, though.

    That Pop Tart aisle photo is making me hungry in a very not healthy and not GF way. Strawberry frosted flavor used to be my favorite when I was a kid. My mom actually gave them to me for breakfast !! Oh, the 80s.

    • Molly says:

      Thanks, Dana! I think you might have been one of the unlucky ones who read it after WordPress decided to go nuts and delete all of my paragraph breaks. *shakes fist* It’s much prettier now, IMO. But yes, I worked hard on this one! “Embiggen” was the easiest part. 😉

      Do you go to the Columbia Celiac Center? Not sure if you’ve mentioned before…?

      We had Pop Tarts in my house for breakfast, too, but I didn’t like them that much. Older brother probably still indulges in a Pop Tart for breakfast now and then. I can say that because he doesn’t read my blog. 😉

  8. This post (and the info shared in the comments) is pretty disconcerting. I didn’t realize about the different kinds of gluten that could be problematic and aren’t tested for. It also seems to be getting harder to be on an all-natural diet, even when using very few convenience or processed foods. In defense of mothers everywhere, however, I will say that Pop Tarts for breakfast was an occasional treat, not a daily occurrence around here, although I don’t know if the usual sugary kids’ cereals were actually any better.

  9. Mary Kate says:

    Given the constraints of your study, no, the results do not surprise me — there aren’t that many direct analogs for the “healthier” types of packaged foods, not that I’ve seen. (And I do think Rice Thins are supposed to be the gluten-free Wheat Thins — I’ve tried them, as they’re free of my list of allergens and I figured that, as a major corporate food brand, I’d be able to find them anywhere I went).

    But it’s interesting more in the larger picture of food packaging claims, though, looking at what keywords the manufacturers think will sell. When food is one of your enemies, in some of its forms, I think you become more skeptical of claims being made about how great these packages are for you. Or I have, for sure.

    And I am pro hyphen in gluten-free. I’m also for the Oxford comma, though.

  10. […] too, of course. Brands cited as no-gos in ancient Celiac.com threads have cleaned up their act, and both small and mainstream companies introduce new goods every day. Even the mighty About.com Guide Jane Anderson can’t keep pace with every recipe […]

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