Although fewer than 1 percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that requires them to avoid gluten, almost one in three people say they are cutting back on products containing the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, according to NPD Group. Many are influenced by antigluten books such as Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, as well as celebrities who have embraced the gluten-free lifestyle, such as actors Zooey Deschanel and Gwyneth Paltrow. Consumption of flour in the U.S. is at a 22-year low, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That’s created a conundrum for cereal and other makers of products that contain gluten. Fight back, and they risk offending people with celiac disease or calling attention to antigluten activists such as William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, who calls wheat “the world’s most destructive dietary ingredient.” Instead, companies including General Mills (GIS) and Kellogg (K) are creating pricier gluten-free versions of their products, while leaving industry groups to defend their regular fare. The U.S. market for gluten-free foods will climb from $4.2 billion in 2012 to $6.6 billion by 2017, according to researcher Packaged Facts.
“Large companies have learned not to overreact to these flash trends,” says Mark Lang, a food marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “There is nothing to gain, and you have everything to lose.”
Fifteen years ago, diets that limited carbohydrates sent sales of white bread and pasta plummeting. Out of that crisis rose organizations such as the Whole Grains Council, which encourages consumers to eat more brown rice and whole wheat bread. The group counts General Mills and PepsiCo’s (PEP) Frito-Lay snack unit among its members. Cynthia Harriman, the group’s director of food and nutrition strategies, says her initial reaction to Wheat Belly was that it was “such nonsense.” Once she realized gluten-free “was not going away,” she used the council’s website to point consumers toward grains such as rice and corn that contain no gluten.
Spying an opportunity, Kellogg introduced a gluten-free version of its Rice Krispies cereal in 2011. A variety of PepsiCo’s Doritos nacho cheese tortilla chips without the protein came out the same year. General Mills sells more than 400 gluten-free products, including versions of its Pillsbury cookie dough and Betty Crocker baking mixes. Sales of its Chex cereal, available in seven varieties without gluten, have jumped by at least 10 percent in each of the past three fiscal years, while the $6 billion breakfast cereal category has remained stagnant. Still, General Mills has been careful not to align itself with any of the antigluten gurus. “There’s a new diet book every week, and most of them really should go without comment,” says company spokeswoman Kirstie Foster. “We’re responding as we think we should.”
The reluctance of grain producers to defend gluten surprises Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books on nutrition. “The industry has been flat-footed in their response,” he says. “They should be reminding people that gluten is protein, generally thought of as a healthy nutrient compared to fats or carbs.”