Functional Benefits of Gluten-free: Behind Its Rise

December 30, 20202 min
Lauren Daniels photo
Lauren Daniels Tastewise

In our trends prediction report, we identified gluten-free as a trend we expect to see expand to new audiences in the new year. Where has the gluten-free trend been in 2023, and what can we anticipate from it in 2024?

What is Gluten-free?

Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It is what gives bread its chewy texture and helps it rise during baking. However, for some people, consuming gluten can cause adverse reactions and lead to health issues.

People who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are advised to follow a gluten-free diet. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the consumption of gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. On the other hand, gluten sensitivity is a condition where individuals experience digestive discomfort after consuming gluten.

A gluten-free diet eliminates all sources of gluten and focuses on whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. It also includes alternative grains like rice, quinoa, and oats that are naturally gluten-free.

In recent years, the popularity of gluten-free diets has increased significantly. This is not only due to the rise in cases of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity but also because many people believe it is a healthier way of eating. However, there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that a gluten-free diet is inherently healthier for individuals who do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Benefits of Gluten-free Food

While a gluten-free diet is essential for those who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it may not provide any additional health benefits for others.

However, there are some potential benefits to consuming gluten-free foods even if you do not have celiac disease:

Improved digestive health

For individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, eliminating gluten from their diet can greatly improve their digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. This is because the body is no longer exposed to the trigger that causes inflammation in the small intestine.

Increased energy levels

Many people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity may experience fatigue as a result of consuming gluten. By eliminating gluten from their diet, they may notice an increase in energy levels and feel less sluggish throughout the day.

Weight loss

Some individuals may experience weight loss when following a gluten-free diet. This could be due to the elimination of processed and high-calorie foods that often contain gluten, and the focus on whole, unprocessed foods.

Improved nutrient intake

When individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity follow a gluten-free diet, they may pay more attention to their food choices and opt for healthier options. This can lead to an increase in nutrient intake, as gluten-free foods tend to be richer in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Gluten-free in The Food and Beverage Scene

The gluten-free food and beverage category is well-placed for the current moment. “Gluten-free” applies significantly – and nearly exclusively – to food and beverage, setting supplements aside.

Within this rich food and beverage scene, gluten-free consumption is beneficial to those who require it (ie. those living with Celiac), but also has uses for general gut health, brain health, skin health, weight management, etc. As scientific research continues to explore the benefits of gluten-free, more and more consumers are jumping on board – we are currently seeing the most health-literate group of consumers perhaps ever.

Download our Free Report on Gluten-free Trends

Interest in functional food and beverage has skyrocketed; whereas in 2019, 1 in every 3 consumers made consumption choices rooted in functional needs, 2023 saw a significant switch to 1 in every 2 consumers making those same decisions.

With at least 50% of the consumers attuned to the functional benefits of food and beverage and growing, gluten-free trends are primed to achieve wider recognition. The traditional associations of gluten-free as “just” for Celiac are on their way out as consumers learn of the category’s diverse benefits. For CPGs, food brands, restaurants and other stakeholders, considering trends among consumers who have the choice of what to eat, and choose to eat gluten-free, is a valuable exercise.

Gluten-free’s origins lay within elimination diets; today the trend has moved solidly into the mainstream.

Consumer interest in food and beverage that supports nutritional, functional, and health needs is up +18% YoY. This rising interest applies to gluten-free categories as well. Interest in immunity-boosting, gluten-free products and dishes are up increasing a significant +19% MoM on average, while interest in comforting and stress-relieving gluten-free items is up +6% MoM and 2.4% MoM on average, respectively.

American interest in non-GMO gluten-free products is 3x higher than general interest in non-GMO food and beverage, while consumers turn to the gluten-free category for weight loss 4x more than general food and beverage. This attention to the nutritional and functional benefits of gluten-free eating and drinking will only continue to rise.

Gluten-free trends originate within the home in both the UK and USA

As people widely become more well-versed in the health benefits of food & beverage, gluten-free trends are growing steadily at similar rates in both the UK and the US. Interest is particularly strong in home cooking contexts; UK consumers are +33% more interested in cooking gluten-free at home this year than last, while their US counterparts are +37% more interested this year.

The pandemic’s explosion of interest in baking at home (between February – April of 2020 alone, baking saw a +100% increase in consumer interest) positively impacted engagement with gluten-free, a category with significant baking applications. With home cooking on the rise consumers aren’t just baking more – they’re building expertise that will continue to have effects in the long run.

Baking trends will continue to accelerate interest in gluten-free in the mainstream, but will not be the sole interest area in 2024. Consumers are increasingly turning to gluten-free food and beverage for their high fiber and protein content. 

US consumers turn to gluten-free food and beverages for protein content almost 7x more than non-gluten-free, while interest in high-fiber, gluten-free food and beverage is growing 1.3% MoM on average.

In 2024, consider expanding your product innovation and marketing to focus on gluten-free for wide audiences, with a particular focus on the health and functional benefits that matter most to your consumers.

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