US consumers are pretty clueless about gluten, reveals new survey from NSF

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

A large number of Americans erroneously believe that rice and potatoes contain gluten, NSF survey reveals
A large number of Americans erroneously believe that rice and potatoes contain gluten, NSF survey reveals

Related tags Wheat

While celiacs – by necessity – are pretty clued up about gluten, most Americans are less well-informed, with a sizable number erroneously believing rice and potatoes contain gluten, according to a new survey.

Meanwhile, just over a quarter (26%) of the 1,012 American adults surveyed over the phone in May by ORC International on behalf of NSF International mistakenly believed products that are wheat-free are also gluten-free.

The key findings:

  • Most Americans (90%) have heard of gluten.
  • Just over one-third (35%) accurately identify gluten as a protein found in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye.
  • 15% define gluten simply as ‘wheat’, and 26% believe products that are wheat-free are also gluten-free.
  • A large number think rice (47%) and potatoes (34%) contain gluten.
  • 41% are not aware that beer might contain gluten.  
  • 58% are not aware that salad dressing might contain gluten.
  • Most are unaware that gluten can also be found in spices/flavorings and dietary supplements (75% and 62% unaware, respectively).
  • 5% believe gluten is a protein found in all carbohydrates.
  • 62% of 18-34-year olds say they know what gluten is (whether they are right or wrong) vs 48% of those 65+.
  • Just over half (54%) believe products with ‘gluten-free’ on the label have been verified to be free from all​ gluten.
  • Just under one-third (31%) look for a gluten-free seal on labels as the first step to determining whether a product contains gluten; while nearly half (46%) view the ingredients list first.
  • The top reason consumers cite for being gluten-free is having a gluten allergy or sensitivity that causes stomach pain, such as bloating, vomiting, or intestinal issues (19%).
  • 12% say they eat a gluten-free diet because it makes them feel healthier.
  • 9% self-identify as having Celiac disease (the scientific literature suggest the figure is more likely around 0.75%).
  • Younger adults (18-34) are more likely than older Americans (65+) to follow a gluten-free diet to lose weight (11% vs 5%, respectively). 

Gluten-free data in perspective

While the percentages of people claiming to be following a gluten-free diet in this and other surveys is high, one market researcher we spoke to (who asked not to be named), said that more indepth consumer surveys typically showed that many of these people are not strictly avoiding gluten, but cutting back on bread, wheat or 'carbs' in general.

Similarly, to get things in perspective, while Mintel pegged the US gluten-free retail market at a staggering $10.5bn in 2013, that’s because it includes anything with a gluten-free label (including products that might be naturally-gluten-free) plus products that have undergone minor formulation changes, he said. However, the absence of gluten is unlikely to be a key purchase driver for many of these foods. 

Grains and gluten

Gluten​ is a protein in wheat (including spelt, Kamut khorasan, einkorn and farro/emmer), barley, rye and triticale.

Gluten-free​ grains include amaranth, corn, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, rice, sorghum and teff.

If you limit the definition of gluten-free to products specifically formulated to replace wheat/rye/barley such as bread, pizza and cookies, the market is far smaller (around $1.2bn in 2013), said the researcher, who noted that most gluten-free sales (by this stricter definition) are driven by a tiny percentage of households who are heavy buyers owing to family members with celiac disease or non celiac gluten sensitivity.

And these core buyers are typically better informed, he said: "All that most surveys are really telling us, is that a very significant portion of the public is uninvolved with the topic, and thus, they don't know much."

Read more from NSF HERE​.

Celiac disease, NCGS: What we know

Fewer than 1% of people have celiac disease, while the scientific literature suggests the percentage with NCGS or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (people who react negatively to some gluten-containing grains, but do not have celiac disease or wheat allergy), ranges from 0.5% to 6% (although we can’t be sure because there are no validated biomarkers or diagnostic tests).

More recent research​ suggests that people with NCGS may in fact be sensitive to fermentable carbohydrates in some gluten-containing products, such as oligofructose and arabinoxylan, and exclusion of these and other fermentable oligo-, di- and monosaccharides as well as polyols; (‘FODMAPs​ ’) could help tackle their digestive discomfort. So the jury is still out on whether gluten proteins or other factors are involved in the aetiology of gluten sensitivity in non-celiac patients.

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