LAS VEGAS — While gluten-free dieting appears to be losing momentum, grain-based foods remain disadvantaged by an endless barrage of diets advocating reduced carbohydrates, said Stephen McCauley, president, The Ginger Network.
Together with Christine Cochran, executive director of the Grain Foods Foundation, Mr. McCauley offered deep insights into media coverage of the grain-based foods industry in a presentation at IBIE 2019. The two spoke Sept. 8 during IBIEducate in a presentation titled, “The State of the Union: Media Shaping the Bakery Marketplace.”
“This trend is starting to unravel,” Ms. Cochran said of gluten-free dieting. “The story now being told is that the gluten-free diet is really for people with a medical condition, and it is not being covered in the media any longer as a healthier alternative to a normal diet.
“The low FODMAP diet is now taking over that space. This is not necessarily as bad for us, because people on a low FODMAP diet can still consume small amounts of gluten. However, gluten-free products also tend to register as low-FODMAP foods.”
More than 54,000 media clips from the past two years were analyzed as the basis of Mr. McCauley’s presentation. He conducted the research over the past two years in work commissioned by the G.F.F. The clips were identified using analysis powered by Critical Mention, a third-party service that searches radio, television, print and electronic sources for media coverage. Mr. McCauley said more than five pages of search terms were input with the objective of helping the industry put its finger on the pulse of news coverage, tracking and correcting misinformation about grain-based foods and tracking trends.
The research showed gluten-free dieting (11,000 mentions) actually trailed glyphosate in mentions (16,000) by the media over the past two years. Glyphosate coverage has driven legal action against manufacturers by individuals alleging they were sickened by the chemical. The volume of news stories about glyphosate has spiked when major developments have occurred in legal cases.
Ms. Cochran warned that the industry remains vulnerable to continuing media cycles around glyphosate and coverage of different countries that are banning the use of the chemical.
By contrast, gluten-free coverage has been steadier and increasing, Mr. McCauley said.
That favorability of gluten-free dieting is declining should not offer peace of mind, Mr. McCauley said. The one constant he has experienced in the 30 years he has worked with the food industry is the popularity of one fad diet or another.
A wide variety of diets have been popular over the past two years, but the top three — gluten free, carb-focused and keto — all restrict intake of carbohydrates.
Discussing the carb-focused diets, Mr. McCauley said aspects of these media references are worrisome for the industry.
“The thing that is concerning about that is that they are not even recommending as part of the X, Y or Z diet you should reduce your carb intake by a certain percentage,” he said. “These are diets that say to reduce carbs for the sake of reducing carbs. It doesn’t say how much or what percentage. It’s that everyone knows you should be reducing your carbs, which is not very educational. But also threatening to us.”
Additionally, there is no shortage of diets specifically targeting carbohydrates, including keto, Paleo, Whole30, carnivore, pegan and no-sugar challenge.
While plant-based diets in theory should be favorable to grain-based foods, advocates for this eating often couple their recommendations with guidance to avoid processed foods, Ms. Cochran said.
“The idea is that the less processed your food is the healthier it is,” Ms. Cochran said. “That’s a real problem for us as an industry. Almost all of our products are made out of flour, which often is classified as processed or even ultra processed. I’m fairly confident no one is eating wheat off the stalk. It’s an opportunity for deeper engagement and conversation.”
Offering takeaways from the research, Mr. McCauley said gut health represents an enormous opportunity for grain-based foods. Separate from coverage of grain-based foods is a “whole world of media coverage” of issues around gut health.
“It’s not just gut discomfort, but the positive of gut health in shaping the microbiome and prebiotics and probiotics,” he said. “Grains play a positive role.”
He also said product innovation offers an opportunity for the industry to tell its story more favorably.
“It’s not just innovative products, it’s shining a light on those innovations,” he said. “So, if we use the gluten story, so much of the positive media coverage is about how the industry is responding to the trend, with innovative new products and how the industry is adjusting.”
More generally, Mr. McCauley encouraged a focus on speaking in a “science forward way” to respond constructively to celebrity endorsed diets
“We know we aren’t celebrities, and we can’t compete with J. Lo or Beyonce with the consumer,” he said. “But we also know we have a responsibility to the consumer to help people understand the benefits of grains. We could be working more with the health professionals industry talking about the importance of not reducing grains. The media too often lumps all carbs in the indulgent category. There are so many important staples in the carbohydrate category people need to remember to consume. Perhaps working with a broader range of health professionals would help stem some of the fad dieting.”