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 organic, all 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:
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.
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.
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?