Tag Archives: organic food

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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It’s not easy being green (and gluten- or allergy-free)

Happy Earth Day! Yesterday in Prospect Park I saw two young guys tromping around the lake, drumming on reclaimed water cooler jugs and chanting “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!,” with a group of kids and parents following behind and half-heartedly shaking the little recycled maraca-things they’d clearly made earlier in the outing. I’m sure Mother Nature found it cute. I found it a good reminder to write this blog post.

Gluten-free often gets lumped in with organic and green in marketing and in popular imagination. I find this odd. Sure, reading labels on processed foods may make you more aware of what weird chemicals you’re putting into your body, and from there you might make the leap to increased awareness of what those chemicals may do to, say, bodies of water. (Dana at Celiac Kiddo wrote a great post about beaver butt in breakfast cereal and what exactly “natural ingredients” means—related and definitely worth a read.)

But overall, I find it’s not that easy to be both green and gluten-free. I’m sure anyone who’s ever had to worry about gluten and allergy contamination can relate; maintaining a clean, contamination-free environment can involve a lot of waste.

There’s the inevitable pantry cleaning at the start and the rallying cry, “When in doubt, throw it out!” Might you have dipped a spoon into first the flour and then the sugar? Toss the sugar. Did a knife go onto toast and then into the jam? Ditch the jar. And while you’re throwing out food right and left, go ahead and buy yourself a new dedicated cutting board, and try not to think about plastic and landfills.

We’re encouraged to buy designated gluten-free toasters, which means double the appliances to plug in, using double the electricity—and no, I don’t believe you remember to unplug your appliances when they aren’t in use.

My sponge usage went through the roof when I went gluten-free, as I’ve written before. Besides that, there’s paper towels for cleaning, parchment paper for baking, and ziploc bags for everything. I also use a lot more soap, which may or may not be harmful to the environment.

And all that is just at home. There’s more! At the grocery store, where before I might have skipped bagging my potatoes and apples, now I worry about those mystery stains on the conveyor belt and opt for the extra plastic. Packaged ingredients, with their FDA-regulated ingredients labels and airtight seals, are my friends. And shopping from the bulk bins to reduce packaging? Forget about it! You don’t know where those scoops have been!

We nod approvingly at muffins being baked in a separate facility and shipped to our local bakeries in individual shrinkwrap. We ask that Chipotle employees wear new gloves while preparing our burritos. And when we can’t find safe places to dine out, we buy individually packaged power bars to see us through.

I’ve even started using more plastic utensils and cups, because I bring meals with me when I’m out instead of stopping off somewhere to eat, and because I don’t trust these items to be clean enough at friends’ homes (no offense).

If you seek organic and non-GMO foods, you may find it harder when purchasing gluten-free products, many of which include corn (here’s a pretty recent list of foods, maintained by a gluten-free, vegan mom blogger, that are non-GMO and gluten-free). I can’t seem to get worked up about GMOs myself, but I understand there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding their health and environmental impact—an anxiety that may be compounded by gluten or allergen concerns.

Organic, natural body care products may also be more likely to include wheat or dairy proteins because these are “natural” alternatives to the chemicals in the big guys. This means if you’re avoiding those proteins, you must reject the purportedly greener options.

For people with severe seasonal allergies to, e.g., pollen, there’s a whole other set of energy expenditures to add into the mix: more laundry-washing, more vacuuming, more air conditioning. Those with serious allergies may also drive their cars during this season more often than they walk or bike. (Amanda at Celiac and Allergy Adventures has written here about the measures she takes during asthma/allergy season.)

So you see? It’s not that easy being green! When we’re expending lots of extra energy ourselves to rigidly control our immediate environment, it’s harder to maintain some of those little footprint-reducing habits we once cherished. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you can’t be green.

The safest foods in the world for most allergies and the gluten-free diet are fresh fruits and vegetables—whole foods that (as long as you buy in season) are pretty darn low in environmental impact. You can even consider going meatless for at least some meals, which is touted far and wide as a simple way to reduce one’s environmental impact. Yes, it can also be a bit harder to maintain a balanced diet while avoiding gluten or allergens and meat and dairy/eggs, but it’s nowhere near as tough as some will have you believe.

You can still keep an eye on your overall energy and water usage (and a dishwasher, widely considered the most effective way to clean contaminated dishes for those lucky enough to own one, is also often more energy- and water-efficient than hand-washing).

And (unless you do have the aforementioned severe seasonal allergies) you can always plant a tree or make an effort to walk or bike more, use public transportation more, and drive less, none of which have much of anything to do with gluten.

Tell me: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? What do you do to reduce your footprint, if so? Do you find it harder to do while on a gluten- or allergy-free diet? What are your tips for managing both at once? And how are you celebrating Earth Day?

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