Schafer: Food firms scramble to embrace latest fads

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2014 - 9:57 PM

In the packaged food industry, there are no fads, only opportunities.

Devotees of a particular diet may recoil to see the word “fad” used here. But there really isn’t a better one to describe what happens when the popularity of avoiding some kind of food soars beyond all reason — like it has with gluten.

Gluten is awful for those with a condition called celiac disease. But for most folks it’s a harmless protein found in wheat and other grains, the stuff that gives bread dough its elasticity.

People with celiac disease struggle to find food to eat that is free of gluten, and for them it’s been a godsend to now have so many gluten-free choices in the grocery store.

But the number of American consumers who want to restrict gluten in their diets isn’t the 1.3 percent or thereabouts with celiac disease. It’s about a third of Americans, according to a poll last year from the consumer marketing research firm NPD Group.

It isn’t particularly difficult to figure out what’s going on. Many consumers have decided that “gluten-free” means “healthy.”

But if there’s one thing that Mayo Clinic physician Amy Oxentenko made sure she got across in our brief conversation, it’s just how wrong that is. How could anyone put away a big bag of gluten-free Fritos thinking the chips are healthy? An ounce of these things, made by a unit of PepsiCo, is 160 calories — 90 of those from fat.

Perhaps consumers have been influenced by Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow and her book “It’s All Good,” which presents gluten as one of the bad things. Hers isn’t the most sophisticated book, what with its recipe for a hard-boiled egg (ingredients: “1 fresh organic egg”), but it did sell.

Or people may have run across a 2011 bestseller called “Wheat Belly,” which argued that not eating products made from wheat could reverse a number of health conditions, although Wheat Belly’s publisher sold it as a weight-loss book.

It probably doesn’t matter to enthusiasts if these kinds of claims can hold up under scientific scrutiny, and it’s almost cruel to argue with people who say they feel so much better now that they’ve stopped eating wheat products. There is certainly no upside for food companies to pick fights with popular authors or celebrities, either.

In fact there appears to be just one smart play once a fad like gluten-free emerges: Jump on it.

“You see a whole flood of gluten-free products, and I don’t think that’s because the companies themselves believe all the claims about it,” said George John, associate dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “It’s basically, ‘We can make this stuff. If you’d like to have it, here it is. And oh, by the way, it will generally cost you more, which is good for us because we get a little more margin.’ ”

John said the only real growth in the packaged food industry comes from “niches that explode unexpectedly.” The hardest part is figuring out when that’s happening.

Spending heavily to launch a new product for what turns out to be a short-term fad can be expensive. Wait for a fad to become a definitive trend, however, risks being very late to the party.

That’s worse.

General Mills famously flubbed its introduction of Greek yogurt and is still playing catch-up. The Golden Valley-based company has played the gluten-free trend far better.

When gluten-free started to heat up, General Mills already happened to own a brand called Chex, and the company had to do next to nothing in 2008 to make its Rice Chex gluten-free. It just swapped out barley malt syrup for molasses.

It added the text gluten-free on boxes and shipped them to stores. “When we did that we saw just a phenomenal response,” said Amber Holm, a marketing manager for Big G cereals.

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