Gluten Free Manufacturers: balancing profitability and social responsibility.

As January progresses so do a thousand ill-advised unsustainable diets, and no doubt among them will be those folks who think giving up gluten is the answer to that bloated feeling after the Christmas binge. Aside from my thoughts on this and how it trivialises gluten-free for those of us with coeliac disease or a diagnosed intolerance; what has been interesting to observe is those gluten-free producers who are subtly encouraging this extra attention; and no doubt enjoying a little spike in sales as a result.

788291_86660875For instance, I have observed some product teams tweeting articles such as 3 reasons to go gluten free which is light on medical information, and heavy on the vagueness. They aren’t outright suggesting gluten-free as an option for weight-loss, but they are subtly appealing to that market.

It seems some manufacturers are behaving somewhat irresponsibly, but should they be compelled to behave otherwise? I’m reminded a little of the current debate raging in the world of pharmaceuticals about transparency of trial data. Should pharma companies be required to publish information that might damage their profitability? Similarly with alcoholic drinks makers and fast food chains – should they be required to tell us how bad the food is for us, or are we grown ups who can make our own decisions? So should gluten free manufacturers encourage faddy eating to improve their sales?

The challenge faced by commercial manufacturers of gluten free products (as opposed to prescription ones) is that their market is not limited to the finite group of diagnosed coeliacs. If you need to grow your business and turn a profit you have a few options:

  1. Increase the number of coeliacs diagnosed (tricky, takes a long time and not in your control)
  2. Sell more to the existing diagnosed coeliacs (a market share war – relies on some pretty great marketing)
  3. Compete with gluten-containing products “great products that just happen to be gluten free” (requires an incredibly strong product and a good branding strategy)
  4. Go after the non-diagnosed market by encouraging more gluters to eat gluten-free (ethically challenging but biggest opportunity)

Which would you choose? . Gluten free products are predicted to be one of the top consumer health trends of 2013 so many manufacturers must be taking Option 4. Let’s not forget that gluten free manufacturers growing their businesses is in our interest – it brings choice and quality of life; and we are talking about commercial companies, not people required to give healthcare advice.

I would argue that ‘option 4’ is not a sustainable strategy. It might deliver a spike in sales, but these are unlikely to be your loyal customers. In the Coeliac community I observe on social media, loyalty comes from trust; and trust comes from credibility, reliability and likeability; none of which are compatible with encouraging faddy eating.

This was a little interlude before a blog next week which looks in more detail at gluten free branding. I recommend Alex’s blog ‘Dear Girl on Twitter’ if you’d like more on why you shouldn’t give up gluten (at least not without talking to a doctor).

I would be interested in your thoughts! Have you seen gluten free manufacturers behaving badly? What do you think of people who don’t need to eat gluten-free, but do?

8 responses to “Gluten Free Manufacturers: balancing profitability and social responsibility.

  1. Maybe not behaving badly, but behaving a bit naughtily? As we discussed on Twitter, the implication that GF can benefit people besides those diagnosed with one of the gluten-related disorders can be quite subtle, and I suspect that manufacturers who see competitors doing it will give in to the temptation to follow suit, and perhaps push that a little further and further each time, until it’s not quite so subtle. It’ll be interesting one to keep an eye on.

    I’ve also noticed a vaguely related phenomenon of, for example, GF dessert or cake or sweet manufacturers tweeting links to quite scholarly articles or sober research concerning allergies and sensitivities. This does not always feel appropriate to me – are they trying to ‘align’ themselves with science and consequently in some way with health? – but I’m still thinking that one through ….

    Strong and sharp blog – and speedy! :)

    A.

  2. Very interesting blog post and we would tend to agree with the majority of comments. As a manufacturer of gluten free foods we are contacted from time to time by certain publications or advertisers asking us to place adverts against inappropriate articles or features. (Needless to say we always put them straight!)

    However, you may not be aware that there is an emerging area of research looking at individuals who have symptoms related to gluten but who have had coeliac disease and wheat allergy excluded as the cause. This newly-recognised condition, in which individuals experience symptoms very similar to coeliac disease e.g. abdominal pain, bloating, fatigue and headaches, has been labelled ‘gluten sensitivity’ or ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ by leading medical professionals in the field and is an area of increasing research interest. In fact, a number of articles on gluten sensitivity have been published very recently in the highly-respected British Medical Journal (BMJ).

    At present there is no medical test available to diagnose gluten sensitivity and the only path to diagnosis is to ensure coeliac disease, wheat allergy and any other causes of the symptoms are excluded prior to making changes to your diet. Preliminary clinic data from the US shows that gluten sensitivity may affect up to 6% of the population, however, this figure still needs to be confirmed in a UK population.

    As a company we have extended our communications to try to inform this group of people about this new area of research. However, we are always careful to recommend that individuals visit their GP to exclude coeliac disease, wheat allergy or other causes of their symptoms before a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity is reached and dietary changes should only be made on the recommendation of their healthcare professional. We endeavour to work with experts in the field to understand the latest research and ensure that any communication to consumers is accurate and based on sound scientific evidence.

    For more information on the some of the studies on gluten sensitivity, visit our website http://www.dietaryspecials.co.uk/gluten-sensitivity/gluten-sensitivity-medical-evidence/

    For more information visit our website or feel free to contact us via email at info@dsglutenfree.co.uk

    • A very interesting point, thankyou for your comment! NCGS is an interesting field of research and certainly anecdotally I have heard of people who haven’t got coeliac diagnosis but certainly get many of the same symptoms as I do. I think you made the most important point which is that people shouldn’t self-diagnose conditions like this, nor should manufacturers encourage it as there could be other health issues at play too.

      Glad to see DS taking an evidence-based approach to this, however a little concerned about the offer to ‘try a 2 week gluten free diet to see if you are gluten-sensitive’ on your site as if you potentially have coeliac – Coeliac UK advise that you continue eating gluten otherwise diagnosis is tricky. Plus coeliac symptoms can take much longer to resolve than 2 weeks so an individual could be discouraged from seeing their doctor when the 2 weeks period didn’t work.

  3. We completely understand your concerns. On our website, we try to be as clear as possible regarding the need to consult a healthcare professional before making any changes to the diet. (We have some examples we could send to demonstrate this.)

    In addition, through-out the sign up process we do advise people to speak to a GP or medical professional before they start to follow a gluten free diet and highlight in both our verbal and written consumer communications the need for coeliac disease, wheat allergy or other causes of the symptoms to be excluded before gluten sensitivity is considered. The meal planner tool was something we created really for people who have a formal diagnosis of gluten sensitivity. Unlike coeliac disease, patients who are diagnosed with gluten sensitivity are not given the same amount of medical support and after care at present.

    As you rightly point out, the time it takes for symptoms to resolve does vary between individuals. Whilst we suggest a trial of a gluten-free diet for 2 weeks for those who may have gluten sensitivity (following consultation with a GP or other medical professional to exclude other causes e.g. coeliac disease), this suggestion is based on experience of some individuals who have been formally diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. However, we will definitely take your comment on board and look to try to clarify that it may take longer than two weeks for symptoms to improve or resolve.

  4. As someone who excludes gluten from my diet for health reasons, but do not have Coeliac disease, I feel I have to echo some of the comments made by DS. Your blog focuses on the benefits of eating a gluten free diet for people diagnosed by their GP and you write skeptically and dismissively about others doing so outside of the guidance of a medical professional. I have to say that I find this incredibly frustrating; I eat a gluten free diet because after years of suffering from eczema, bloating and fatigue and numerous visits to GPs who tested me for Coeliac but were uninterested in investigating further, I happened to chance upon an internet article about a gluten free diet and the benefits. Further, my father, who had spent 40+ years of life with joint pain, migraines, eczema, weight gain, restless legs and fatigue followed suit and after visits to a GP which Coeliac excluded as a cause, excluded gluten from his diet. He is now over 60, full of energy, at a normal weight (and not on a calorie restricted diet) and has not had a migraine for years. Occasionally, on accidentally eating gluten, the migraine which results will be so severe that he will be in bed, with vomiting and blurred vision for up to 48 hours. There is no doubt in both of our minds that eating a gluten free diet is directly responsible for the improvement in our health. However, GPs are not interested. The emerging evidence supporting the existence of gluten related health disorders is so new that many health professionals have no knowledge of it. Whilst I would agree with your sentiment that it is wise to consult a GP in the first instance, to dismiss undiagnosed GF eaters as following a faddy diet, or to suggest that people who do not have a diagnosis do not really need to eat a GF diet is not helpful. According to your definitions, we are those consumers following a faddy diet, who will not be loyal customers. Actually, the opposite is true; the consequences of eating gluten for my father are so severe that he will be a loyal customer for life. I would love for me and my father to have diagnoses for why gluten causes our bodies to react this way, but in the interim I will have to be satisfied with my anecdotal evidence because it’s all I have to inform the choices I make when I eat.

    • Hi Jess- I’m afraid my meaning didn’t come across? I recognise that there are a range of conditions associated with eating gluten and a growing body of evidence about non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. I of course typically focus on coeliac as that’s my experience. My concern is more about manufacturers encouraging the (often celebrity-led) people who give up gluten without medical reason, often under the mistaken assumption that the diet will help them to loose weight or is somehow healthier. In fact as I’m sure you are aware GF alternatives are often sugar/fat laden and in lots of cases are not nutritional equivalents, so a GF diet needs to be approached carefully and ideally with professional advice to ensure its balanced. I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t had good support from your doctors, I remember how frustrated and low I was when I couldn’t get to the bottom of my illness; but glad to hear that you have found something that’s working. Really highlights the need for more research in this area.

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