In a group I admin online, we were talking about GlutenDude’s editorial regarding the media backlash – you can call it an assault – on those of us following a gluten free lifestyle. The prevailing attitude in commercials, tv shows, and comedy routines seems to be that the gluten free diet trend is strictly that – a trend. (Those of with medical or health reasons for avoiding gluten are feeling understandably stung by the assumption that the gluten free ‘fad’ is over and that those still gluten free are free to be mocked)
This led to a discussion about how the food industry doesn’t seem to be sharing this cynical, smug attitude – a billion new gluten free products (each one better quality than the last) seem to be introduced every day. So obviously the mockers on tv are wrong, and this gluten free thing is here to stay, right? Those of us on a gluten free diet have nothing to worry about right?
The truth of the matter is that the gluten free diet *has* been trending for several years, for reasons having to do with general health and weight loss. At it’s height one in three Americans were trying gluten free products just to see what they were like, and thirty eight percent of Americans were switching to some variation and form of a gluten free or gluten reduced diet to see if it improved some kind of condition – everything from weight to stress to sleep. That’s right on trend with most ‘fad’ diet trends in the United States. Of those surveyed in that huge 38% number, only about 5% were doing it due to celiac disease.
The fact is, gluten free has been trending. It’s now fading from all but the hard-core – those who are permanently committed either by dietary philosophy or medical necessity to a gluten free lifestyle.
One of our group members asked, “I wonder if food manufacturers really care about us or are they jumping on the “gluten-free” bandwagon so they can get a share of the profits?”
Gluten free became huge business from 2009 through 2014.
Do those companies who released products during that time care about us? That answer’s complicated.
Some companies started because their founders had celiac disease or some other condition. They were there long before or right at the time gluten free became a ‘thing’, and they have a reason to exist long after the trend fades. Do these guys care about you? Likely, yes, they really do. They’re passionate about this community, this food, and this way of life. They also happen to make a living from something they created that met a real need for the people they love. They’re going to do it right, because their own health, their personal reputations, and their family finances are on the line if they drop the ball even once.
Know what happened when one in three people proved they were willing to plunk down an (increased) chunk of change to buy something labeled gluten free? Manufacturers lined up at the udder of the cash cow, with shiny new pails (products). They’re milking that cow for all it’s worth.
Now don’t get me wrong… we’re reaping the benefit, and I fully am thrilled to have quality choices (and lots of them!) in my local supermarket. I’m not complaining. Oh heck no. I want my gluten free cereal, pizza, cookies, pretzels. I’m thrilled to have choices that don’t stink. I’m happy to save money where I can. But I’m not being naive either – These awesome new gluten free lines meet a market demand, move at an acceptable volume, and produce an acceptable amount of profit. As long as that chain isn’t interrupted, then the big companies will keep providing what we keep wanting.
The minute that amazing gluten free Product X stops moving or making money? That line is going to be yanked. (Exhibit A: Gluten Free Rice Krispies).
And this may be the conspiracy theorist in me, but I fully believe that some of these companies – if they can get away with making a shady ‘gluten free’ claim based on poor methodology and weird logic – will do precisely that. (Exhibit B: ‘kind of gluten free only not this 1.8 million boxes of’ Cheerios).
But what about Big Company A? “I read they they are doing this because ‘Pete – the COO’s – daughter/brother/best friend is a celiac, and we care about you.’ – that’s what the box says! These guys must be committed, right? Right?” Oh you poor darling. No. Not in a million years. One person will not keep a supply chain running. Not you. Not ‘Pete’. Big Company A is not any more committed to Pete than they are to you. I believe ‘Pete’s’ loved one is a celiac, but I also believe that Company A paid big bucks to some consultant to learn about trust-based marketing… it’s just that. Marketing. When the money dries up, Pete’s daughter/son/pet gerbil are going to be out of luck, too.
Point blank: Large, publically owned companies care about your money. Not you. Know why? Because their stockholders care about their money. Not you. Period. This isn’t meant to be an insult. They don’t want to offend you. They don’t want to hurt you. They just don’t really care about *you*. Or perhaps I should be more precise: they care about you (and more precisely your shopping patterns and lifestyle desires) only insofar as it earns them profit and only insofar as it avoids a lawsuit. Beyond that, you are literally nobody to them.
When the market dries up, when the potential liability becomes too great, or the general populace jumps to another bandwagon, they’re going to pull their lines and move on. And your feelings have nothing to do with it.
There is subset of companies – let’s call them Big Company B – intrinsically gluten free companies who’ve been bought out by venture capital firms or publicly traded companies, because they have a good product, and they do what they do really well. They’ve built trust, and they’ve made money, and the guys with really big money found them and found a way to ride a trend with them.
What about these guys? Well… that’s a tough one too.
The original owners of Big Company B (who often are still running the company) DO care about you. And they are committed to sticking around. Some of their partners/investors may also care about you. But some of them may not. If they’ve gone public, believe me, they do not care any more about ‘you’ than Big Company A – which is to say, they care about what your buying patterns are and how many of you there are out there and not much more. And when the trend is over, the decision to keep the company open or close shop and shift resources elsewhere will be made by the folks with control of the purse-strings – and the deciding factor won’t be how you feel. It will be a balance sheet.
And it goes beyond tomorrow’s forecast – Big Company B may be making decisions which reduce product quality (Exhibit C: Udi’s ‘holey’ bread) as the companies attempt to squeeze extra profits out of the market.
On the one hand, it’s important to support all those big businesses – as long as money rolls in, we’ll get to choose which brand of gluten free flour, gluten free cereal, gluten free bread bread, gluten free ready meals, gluten free pretzels…. we like best.
As long as there’s money to be made, we’ll be able to shop for the most convenient and low cost options. Our direct support of big business *may* keep our favorite product lines on the market after the general fad finishes fading. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
What will happen when this gluten free ‘fad’ really is over and those of us who will eat gluten free for a lifetime are down to the single digit percents in terms of buying power?
A huge amount of people are eating gluten free, and likely will be for another year to three years. The trend is already waning – people feel safe mocking it, right? – but the bubble hasn’t completely popped. We’re in the golden days of buying gluten free food products.
If you buy BigBrand A Gluten Free Flour because it’s convenient, or it’s cheap , you’re winning right now. You’re saving time. You’re saving money. You’re saving your health. BigBrand A makes a great flour, and it’s cheap. SmallBrand B Gluten Free Flour may go out of business, but who cares, right? When not enough people are buying BigBrand A, and the company (or the club store, or whoever is in charge of shelf spacing) pulls the line… when you don’t have SmallBrand B (or C or D) to fall back on, what will you do? What happens then?
When the bubble’s burst, a small percentage of us will still be here (for the rest of our lives) with a need for quality, safe, gluten free food. It’s important to make sure we have sustained the companies who will sustain us.
Choose a brand you truly trust. Choose a brand who shows by their product quality, employment practices, and customer service that they actually care about more than just the bottom line. Choose a brand that actually cares about *you* the consumer, not you the ‘cash cow’. Choose a brand who is committed to be here years whether or not the ‘fad’ ends and the ‘limitless’ market dries up.
When given a choice between supporting a small independent brand and a big brand, choose the small business every time, for their sake… and for yours.