I had the opportunity to attend the Gluten Free Expo in Calgary on the weekend, billed to be the largest of its kind in the country. Before calling for the lynch mob, I will explain that my partner is one of the one in every 133 Canadians who is diagnosed with celiac disease, a disease of the small intestine which is damaged by gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, triticale and barley. While she is on the constant hunt for the perfect gluten-free flour formulation for the do-it-your-selfer, I find myself always entertained by the study of food industry trends.
The show was packed on the afternoon of the second day, as people lined up for many of the free samples available for everything from cereals, snack bars, perogies, pizzas and pre-packaged Asian dishes, just to name a few. As if the gluten-free foods are not healthy enough to meet the needs of the diet-conscious consumer, many of the offerings went one step further to offer gluten-free/GMO-free products to appeal to an even wider customer segment. There were non-GMO products made from oats, dried beans and even quinoa, as if the GMO versions of these crops ever existed! I heard more than one conversation regarding the benefits of this ultra-healthy combination. Other overlaps at the Expo involved organic food, natural foods and locally-grown foods.
The push towards limiting gluten consumption has moved even beyond the consumer level. My own family doctor has recommended eliminating gluten as a means of testing the impact to my own unexplained stomach ailments. After some debate, he may have wished he had not brought it up!
Despite the consumer craze, mixed messages are now coming from the media suggesting there are cracks in the theories behind the elimination of gluten, while those that seek to profit on the food trends may be shifting their attention to their next gimmick. On March 3, Global News in Canada reported on the annual Restaurants Canada Chef Survey which reported that the 400 Canadian chefs surveyed named gluten-free foods as the No. 1 food trend in Canada for 2014. The eat-local trend had held the top spot for the previous four years. The top three trends for 2014 were gluten-free, quinoa and locally-sourced foods.
Since the release of this survey, the March 29 edition of the National Post carried a front-page story suggesting the trend (or should I say fad) is over. Joseph Brean's article Back to Bread begins with "Gluten-free was just another fleeting food FAD. Why we're susceptible to pseudoscience MARKETING, and our Never-Ending neurosis over NUTRITION." The article further suggested that gluten-free is "the latest health food megatrend to collapse under the weight of time and common-sense."
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On the commercial side, growth in the gluten-free offer has slowed, with profits from the segment suggested to have maxed and now on a downhill slide. The National Post points out a report in the pizza industry which states, "If the decision is made to enter the trend either: Prepare to downsize production as the trend downsizes to the appropriate audience ...(and) have a fast-acting exit strategy." The Canadian industry is suggested to have peaked at a half a billion dollars in 2012.
While approximately 1% of the North American population is a diagnosed celiac, the larger concern remains the "food avoidance" group, with research indicating one in three suggested to be avoiding gluten. "Consumers, rightly or wrongly, have made a connection between gluten-free and healthy," said Nicholas Fereday, an analyst at Rabobank," as reported in the Edmonton Journal.
Scienceline, an online site from New York University suggests that risks associated with avoiding gluten should be considered. Not only are gluten-free choices costing 242% more than non-gluten options on average, but they can also result in a substantial increase in both calories and fat content that can actually prove to be less healthy than choices containing gluten.
A move away from the gluten-free trend may lead to slight negative impacts to some farm groups. For example, the pulse growers have used this trend as an opportunity to promote further use of pulses, with recipe books educating bakers how to substitute pea and bean flour to bake just about anything. The Gluten Free Expo also included a demonstration of the Cavena Nuda brand of naked oats, also known as rice of the Prairies.
Wheat growers, however, will not be sorry to see the end of this fad. Huge resources are consumed battling against the negative publicity seen from the ongoing trends in consumer demands, many as a result of "evangelical nutritionists" who have found a "simple solutions for a complex problem."
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Cliff Jamieson can be reached at email@example.com
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