Is there a gluten-free bubble market?

Literally ten years ago, I did some freelance financial research for a money manager in Connecticut. One of the projects was to study past bubble markets and prove that the’s were not a bubble.

He really wanted me to prove that the’s were a “new paradigm” because technology, overnight shipping, a combination of “bricks and clicks” and different measures made the crazy growth sustainable in the long term. In March 1999, I turned in my findings which said that the’s were indeed a bubble market and the growth was not sustainable. He was furious with me because I had not proven his theory with research and that was the last project he asked me to do for him.

A year later I wanted to call him up and ask him how his portfolio was doing, but my husband convinced me not to burn my bridges.

So, how does this relate to my gluten-free life? At Expo West, gluten-free foods were everywhere. There was an incredible enthusiasm to label things gluten-free. Whether it was a side of beef, a protein drink or figs, if the product was gluten-free, then that message was a key marketing point proclaimed on the product banners and literature.

I found myself engaged in a lively discussion with one vendor who called gluten-free the latest “food craze.” He considered it a “Hollywood fad” that was here today and gone tomorrow. We all know those fads, cabbage soup, low-carb, no white foods, low-sugar, low-fat, food for blood type…it’s a long list of trends.

I pushed back and said, “Not so fast.” What about the segment of the population that will be eating gluten-free foods forever? It’s not trendy for me, it is sustenance.

He was not impressed that the rough number of people diagnosed with celiac disease hovers between 150,000-200,000. He didn’t think that “small” number warranted the hype to make a gluten-free product. There is that self-diagnosed portion of the population that “feels better” when they don’t eat wheat, but if they aren’t diagnosed with anything they can go back to eating pizza whenever they want. So I thought about his point pretty seriously.

I pushed back one more time and mentioned the potential for diagnosed celiacs in the US market and we both agreed that this paints a different picture. If 1 in 133 were actually diagnosed, that would be a significant market.

My thoughts on this are that gluten-free will have a soft landing. Every week I am told of at least one friend of a friend who was recently diagnosed. The fad part of gluten-free will be replaced with truly diagnosed, forever gluten-free folks. When the bubble burst, the ridiculous concepts—like the one with the sock puppet spokesman—went away. The rush for gluten-free products may cool or consolidate, but with increased awareness comes increased diagnosis and I don’t see a bubble bursting.

  • This is an interesting topic. I fall under the “self-diagnosed” segment of the population, but I can’t say that I’d go back to eating pizza whenever I want. The reason I don’t have a medical diagnosis is that I don’t want to take the hardship and risks of going back on a wheat-based diet just for the scientific certification of a diagnosis for something that I already know: gluten damages my insides. I was off wheat for 6 months before I realized that you had to be eating it to get tested accurately. The diet does wonders, and I am happy to be one of the undiagnosed if I never have to go back to eating wheat.

    I hope the recent availability of new GF products continues on into my future!

  • Excellent topic. And good for you for pushing back – that vendor really doesn’t get it. This is not a fad for me or anyone I know living gf. I believe more and more people will be diagnosed and the gf segment will steadily continue to grow.