Consumers View Natural as Wholesome, Gluten-Free as a Fad

The NPD Group and Mintel found interesting new research about consumer ideas regarding natural and gluten-free foods.

Alissa Marrapodi

December 10, 2015

5 Min Read
Consumers View Natural as Wholesome, Gluten-Free as a Fad

The NPD Group and Mintel found interesting new research about consumers’ ideas regarding natural and gluten-free foods.

New data from The NPD Group found natural foods convey a sense of wholesomeness, without additives, chemicals and preservatives to consumers. At first glance, “natural and “all natural" hints that the product is free of anything manmade, but that is not always the case, so consumers have requested FDA explore the use of the term “natural." In direct response to consumers and what FDA said is the “changing landscape of food ingredients and production," the federal agency said it’s seeking public comments on the use of the term “natural" in food labeling.

FDA issued non-legally binding guidance on “natural" labeling in the 1990s that states, “nothing artificial or synthetic—including all color additives regardless of source—has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food." This guidance allows for foods or beverages with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or GMOs, for example, to still be labeled as natural.

What has changed since the 1990s are consumers’ concerns about some of the ingredients that are used in their foods and beverages. There is emerging evidence that consumers are looking for foods to be in their pure form. Today, more than 30 percent of consumers are cautious about serving foods with preservatives compared to 24 percent 10 years ago, and the trend for additives follows the same progression. HFCS and GMOs are two of the top-growing concerns in the United States. Much of their concern, however, stems from negative publicity, not science, and lack of knowledge. An NPD report, Gauging GMO Awareness and Impact, shows one of the most common answers to the question of what is a GMO was “I don’t know."

Prominent natural and organic retailers have stepped into the national GMO discussion by labeling “GMO-free" any products that meet the qualifications. Manufacturers have also decided to call out GMO-free foods.

“This may make consumers wonder if a product labeled ‘natural’ but not GMO-free truly is natural," said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “This also supports updating the natural definition to help consumers understand what can or cannot qualify for the label."

Consumers rely on food labels to see what’s not included and what is included in products, according to NPD’s food market research. Thirty-nine percent of Americans consume foods or beverages with an “all natural" or “natural ingredients" special label in an average week. 

“Marketers would be wise to initiate a dialogue with consumers to assuage concerns about particular ingredients," Seifer said.  “Education about how specific products and ingredients can fit into consumers’ daily lives also will go a long way in clearing up possible confusion about ‘natural’ foods messaging."

Gluten-Free is a Fad But …

New research from Mintel revealed nearly half of Americans agree that gluten-free diets are a fad, compared to 31 percent in 2013, despite the fact 25 percent of Americans eat gluten-free foods, a 67 percent increase from 2013.

A testament to innovation in the category, Mintel’s Gluten-Free Foods – US – October 2015 report showed some 90 percent of consumers are satisfied with the available gluten-free food options, and 35 percent agree the quality of gluten-free foods is higher than before. In fact, some Americans are willing to pay a premium for gluten-free options—26 percent of consumers agree that gluten-free foods are worth their added cost.

When looking at the reasons why consumers gravitate toward gluten-free foods—aside from a gluten intolerance or sensitivity—Mintel’s research showed consumers perceive foods with any free-from claim to be both healthier and less processed. Likewise, growth of gluten-free foods is driven by health concerns, with 37 percent of consumers reporting they eat gluten-free foods because it’s better for their overall health and 16 percent doing so because “gluten is bad for you." Another 11 percent of consumers eat gluten-free foods because a healthcare professional suggested they eliminate gluten from their diet.

Despite linking gluten-free foods to health, consumers who eat these foods for weight loss dropped from 25 percent to 19 percent 2014 to 2015, suggesting consumers are more likely to view gluten-free products as a contributing factor to their overall wellbeing than simply as a weight-loss tool. This is evidenced by the 23 percent of consumers who report they only incorporate gluten-free foods into their diet some of the time.

Skeptical attitudes toward gluten-free diets have done nothing to hinder sales of gluten-free foods, as the category has experienced growth of 136 percent from 2013 to 2015, reaching estimated sales of $11.6 billion in 2015. With 27 percent of gluten-free food consumers looking for gluten-free labels on food packaging, gluten-free food sales exploded from 2.8 percent of total food sales in 2013 to 6.5 percent in 2015.

However, trust in gluten-free product claims has slightly decreased, with 45 percent of consumers trusting that products bearing a gluten-free claim are actually gluten-free, down from 48 percent in 2014. Another 45 percent of consumers agree manufacturers should not label products as gluten-free if they never contained gluten in the first place.

“While some consumers view the gluten-free diet as a fad and are looking for improved nutrition and ingredients in gluten-free foods, consumption continues to trend upward. Large and small manufacturers are entering the gluten-free category, increasing the availability, quality and variety of gluten-free foods while Americans display interest in incorporating these foods into their diet," said Amanda Topper, senior food analyst at Mintel.

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