Gluten-Free: Fad or Fact of Life?

Can social media conversations tell us if gluten-free is here to stay?

Gluten is such a hot topic these days that even the Pope has had enough.
Gluten, a protein present in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, affects those who with celiac disease, where a sensitivity to gluten causes digestive issues. But, of late, the protein has earned a bad rap among eager adopters of diet fads who shun gluten to lose weight and deem a gluten-free diet to be a healthier alternative.

In this post, we discuss what compels consumers to adopt a gluten-free diet and how that choice influences the food they buy at grocery stores.

Is gluten a traditional allergen?

In many ways, gluten is thought of as a traditional allergen, like peanuts or dairy. But when we dove into the consumer conversation on social, we learned that this is not completely the case.
When we looked at the gluten-free conversation on social, we found that only a small chunk of the discussion was driven by parents discussing kids’ nutrition and allergies.
Allergens are a big factor in the types of foods parents choose to buy for their children, but while egg, dairy and peanut allergies elicit a lot of conversation on social as allergy risks for children, gluten doesn’t contribute much to that discussion.

As we can see from the graph above, gluten forms a small part of the school lunch allergy conversation, so: What else is fueling the gluten-free craze on social media?

Gluten as an enemy

Today’s consumer is more  informed and aware than ever, and also eager to jump on fad bandwagons. This is reflected not only in their shopping habits but also their lifestyle choices. There is a fine line between dietary choices and restrictions, and gluten toes that line. As we discussed, it is on the list of allergens that consumers try to avoid, but it is also a major player in social media conversations about diet trends and preferences. 
Popular nutrition trends like going gluten-free diets are not only shaping healthy lifestyles today, but creating new product lines and driving demand for environmentally sustainable products. We analyzed conversation about nutrition trends including dairy-free, vegetarianism and veganism mentioned above from 2010-2016 in the U.S.

We found that, overall, the gluten-free conversation far outpaces all other topics, encompassing two-thirds of the total conversation with over 2 million posts.

But is all the discussion related to dietary requirements? Not really. Recent studies have shown that the percentage of Americans following a gluten-free diet is more than three times the number of those with celiac disease.
The researchers of the study estimated that 1.76 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, but an estimated 2.7 million people in the U.S. abandoned or reduced their gluten intake without ever being diagnosed with celiac disease, the condition most closely related to gluten intolerances.
Social media conversations also stand by this trend. We compared the consumer discussions focused specifically on intolerances to those choosing to adopt gluten-free diets and found that an increasing number of consumers express the intent on social to go gluten-free with words like choosing, trying, considering, or wanting.

Brand talk

As the demand for more specialized, allergen-free products has grown, several brands have stepped in to tap into this emerging market. Now that we have identified the demand for gluten-free products among the social audience, we can now look at brands that are associated with that discussion.
Just as non-dairy milk options like almond milk have started crowding the shelves amid growing demand, gluten-free flours have similarly multiplied. Rice, almond, and coconut are the most discussed options, all of them have been talked about fairly evenly over the past 3 years.
Rice flour was more popular six years ago, but experienced a slump between 2012-2014, before inching up again. Almond flour, however, has more than doubled in share of voice over the past six years.


Among gluten-free brands, Udi’s Gluten Free is mentioned the most, followed by Bob’s Redmill and Betty Crocker.

The gluten-free audience

Identifying who is driving the social chatter can help understand the consumer landscape better and predict buying behavior. Much of the gluten-free discussion can be attributed to women over 35.

Diet fads are always evolving and dovetail with consumer preferences and tastes. How shoppers fill their grocery carts are determined by what they consider healthy.
What products do shoppers like to buy? When do they want to buy it? What is the line of compromise between value and quality? And, what is the price point that determines that?
These are all questions that are worth asking while determining how much influence a popular health fad has. And once again, we can trust social media to provide a window into that conversation.
This is a part of a larger series on consumer packaged goods. Download our larger, in-depth report on consumer opinions about grocery and diet trends in the consumer packaged goods industry below.

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