Hello Gluten-Free, Goodbye Organic?

Toby Amidor


The gluten-free trend has been taking the market by storm, enticing many folks to believe that it can assist with weight-loss efforts and a variety of medical conditions (although neither claims have been substantiated). More restaurants are touting their gluten-free options, while supermarkets are overflowing with gluten-free products. Meanwhile, statistics reveal that between 2010 and 2013, the term "organic" declined on restaurant menus. So why is gluten-free becoming hotter, while organic is fizzing out? There's a lot we can learn from these evolving trends.

The Rise of Gluten-Free

In the early 2000s, I taught a basic nutrition course to aspiring chefs at a New York City culinary school. Both the terms "gluten-free" and "celiac disease" were foreign. The students couldn't believe someone could be allergic to their beloved gluten used to make popular foods such as pizza, pasta and bread. Today, allergen-related claims like "gluten-free" on restaurant menus have increased 200 percent, according to the market research firm Mintel. The firm also found that the gluten-free food category is expected to generate more than $15 billion in annual sales by 2016. According to Nielsen, household purchases of gluten-free foods increased from 5 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2013.

[Read: Gluten-Free Diet Recipes, Nutrition Information and More .]

Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder in which the body attacks the small intestine when gluten is ingested. If undiagnosed, it can lead to a variety of health problems, such as infertility, migraine headaches, osteoporosis, Type 1 diabetes and thyroid disease. According to The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, an estimated 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease -- that's only 1 percent of the population. For those with celiac disease, the influx of gluten-free products and restaurant menu items provides them with a wide variety of tasty options, such as breads, cookies, pizza, pasta and cereal. Even the Girl Scouts introduced a gluten-free chocolate chip shortbread cookie to their collection of treats. But these aren't the folks driving the majority of sales. Instead, people looking to lose weight or who are choosing gluten-free foods as the "healthier" options are among those ringing up the gluten-free dollar.

However, following a gluten-free diet doesn't necessarily guarantee weight loss. Many gluten-free products are filled with more sugar and fat than their gluten-filled counterparts. Also, current research doesn't support the numerous health claims about a gluten-free diet and its effects on certain autoimmune disorders such as thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that gluten-free foods couldn't contain more than 20 parts of gluten per million. This guideline made it very difficult for large food companies that produce a variety or gluten and gluten-free products in the same facility to label their products as gluten-free. It also left room for many mom and pop businesses to get a piece of the gluten-free pie. With so much love being given to local and homemade products, it was a recipe for success for smaller business owners who wished to prevail in gluten-free world.

[Read: Living Your Best (Gluten-Free) Life .]

The Fall of Organic

According to Mintel, the "organic" claim on restaurant menus declined between 2010 and 2013. Instead, terms like "made from scratch" and "signature" are preferred. And although organic sales continue to increase, it's reported that companies like Walmart plan on offering organic food products at a cheaper cost.

So why the decreased use of the "organic" claim on restaurant menus? Initially, the increased popularity of organic foods began because many folks believed organic food was healthier and higher in quality. However, in order to meet the demand for organic foods, we are now importing organic fare from overseas. Although the U.S. government has guidelines to maintain the safety and quality of imported organic fare, it's tough to control. Also, many folks are turned off by imported foods and prefer to support U.S.-grown or local fare. The growth of farmers markets and community supported agriculture has increased the bond between buyers and growers, making the farm-to-table connection a direct and more trusting one. Plus, if you speak to local farmers, many follow organic farming practices but can't afford the steep fee needed to obtain the USDA's organic seal.

[Read: Is Organic Food Healthier? ]

What's a Shopper To Do?

The gluten-free trend is at its peak and won't be going away soon. The trend is beneficial for those who need gluten-free foods for medical purposes, but it's not necessarily a healthier way of living for those who can include gluten in their diets. As for organic, it's been so hyped by the media that it has lost its original meaning. Save your organic dollar and get to know your local farmers and growers. Speak with them so you can learn about their growing practices firsthand.


Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations, including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.