Some 20% of Irish people regularly shop for gluten-free products, despite the fact that just 1% of the population has been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease, new research has shown.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. People with coeliac disease are unable to digest this protein and consumption can lead to a range of symptoms including weight loss, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The only treatment for people with coeliac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet, however, in recent years, an increasing number of people without coeliac disease are opting to follow this diet in the belief that it may benefit their health.
However, recent US research published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that there are no proven health benefits to switching to a gluten-free diet unless a person has coeliac disease or an allergy to wheat.
According to this latest research from Bord Bia, 20% of people in Ireland now regularly shop for gluten-free products and this market is worth around €66 million.
"Traditionally, gluten free offerings were only available in pharmacies or health food stores, whereas now there is proliferation right across the retail chain. The market has experienced an increase in the number of available products as well as double digit growth in supermarkets. There is also a lot of noise around the topic, whether it is from celebrity advocates such as Gwyneth Paltrow, or chefs and bloggers," commented Paula Donoghue of Bord Bia.
The research found that despite just 1% of the population having been diagnosed with coeliac disease, the gluten-free diet appears to be particularly popular among upper and middle-class earners, and the main driver of this appears to be the desire to maintain a healthy diet.
"Some 78% of Irish people who follow a gluten-free diet are not diagnosed as coeliac. Nearly half of these (38%) do not have any intolerance to wheat or sensitivities, but perceive gluten free to be a healthier lifestyle choice," Ms Donoghue explained.
In fact, the research found that many respondents, despite knowing where to find it and how to avoid it, could not even explain what gluten actually is.
Meanwhile, those who did not follow such a diet looked on it as a fad diet that does not taste as good and is expensive.
The research was carried out to understand the motivations and profiles of gluten-free shoppers and included an online survey and face-to-face interviews with consumers.