Consumer trend in self-diagnosis: The gluten-free conundrum
That American consumers spend billions annually on gluten-free products is newsworthy, but the jury is out on whether or not the consumers buying these products really need them. In other words, we believe there is a whole lot of self-diagnosing going on out there, observes The Hartman Group.
What we are witnessing in the consumer preoccupation with gluten-free is indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon in consumer self-diagnosis and treatment. Consumer self-diagnosis of perceived ailments and allergies has paved the way for billions of dollars in sales of products with “no/low” formulations, as well as those offering enhanced or modified ingredient profiles.
We know from our own ongoing immersive research into consumers’ health and wellness lifestyles and behaviours that historically consumers often see prescription drugs as a last treatment resort and today’s consumers are more likely to be treating self-diagnosed moods and emotional states with their diet (e.g., foods and beverages) rather than turning to medications.
Self-diagnosis and resulting self-treatment is actually a fountain from which flow the first drops of emerging trends and fads. From this perspective, it exists as an important harbinger of "things to come" for food producers and retailers alike.
The process to detect which emerging trends that lurk on the edges of culture have mainstream potential can be a proverbial gold mine to innovative marketers. The key will be in knowing which will have direct influence on consumption.
Whether or not self-diagnosed ailments, allergies or intolerances in fact have any physiological basis is largely irrelevant to most consumers. What is important for the near term is that such diagnoses are most assuredly driving daily behaviour — for the afflicted consumer(s) as well as their household, and this includes not just self-diagnosed physiological symptoms (e.g., allergies to gluten or dairy) but emotional or cognitive symptoms (e.g., depression).
Consider how, back in the late 1990s, the low-carb diet "took off" and Dr. Atkins became a household name. A large part of the diet's success lay in consumer self-diagnosis of weight gain due to over-consumption of carbohydrates—an easy assumption for individuals used to a diet heavy in sugars and carbohydrate-laden breads, pastas, grains, cereals and baked goods.
Food manufacturers were quick to cash in on the low-carb “trend” and rolled out food and beverage product solutions to meet demand. Yet, just as products reached supermarket shelves, cultural interest in the Atkins diet waned due to rising concerns about the true healthfulness of a diet consisting mainly of dairy and protein (e.g., red meat). Soon enough, the trend faded.
We may also recall the enormous rise in popularity of taking vitamins, minerals, herbs and supplements (VMHS) that were an integral element of the early days of a burgeoning wellness marketplace in the 1990s. That was when Dr. Weil, organics and alternative medicine became household names. American consumers were on a quest to improve their physical, mental and spiritual health through self-exploration of their diet, nutrition, ingredients and other lifestyle behaviors.
This tinkering with personal health is at the heart of self-diagnosis and what we see occurring in the boom in the gluten-free trend is ever indicative of this larger cultural behaviour.
Trends grounded in consumer self-diagnosis are not without consequence and a word of caution is required.
There is a growing propensity among consumers to listen to members of their close social network, study health issues and indications on the Internet, and begin to assume that ongoing headaches and stomach pains can only be explained by sensitivities to gluten (or MSG or food dyes or perhaps dairy products). Such diagnoses are largely undertaken without consultation of a medical professional or the appropriate medical tests. They just fit neatly within the realm of self-diagnosis and self-treatment that consumers strongly adhere to.....