Gluten Confusion Rampant among American Consumers


Fifty-four percent of Americans define gluten incorrectly or are unsure what it is, according to a new survey.

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Gluten may be a buzzword Americans are familiar with, but new survey results suggest many American consumers are confused about what gluten is and which products it appears in.

Although 90% of Americans have heard of gluten, 54% define gluten incorrectly or are unsure what it is, according to the results of a telephone survey conducted by ORC International on behalf of NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI).

The most widely held misconceptions were that gluten is a protein found in all carbohydrates or that it is simply wheat (held by 20% of respondents), or that products that are wheat-free are also gluten-free (held by 26% of respondents). Only 35% of respondents could accurately identify gluten as a protein found in wheat and other grains such as barley and rye.

Many respondents were also confused about which foods do or do not contain gluten. Among respondents who had heard of gluten, 47% incorrectly identified rice as containing gluten and 34% incorrectly identified potatoes as containing gluten, while 41% failed to identify beer as containing gluten and 58% failed to identify salad dressings as containing gluten. Spices/flavors and dietary supplements were also overlooked as potential gluten-containing foods, with 75% and 62% of consumers failing to realize those products may contain gluten, respectively. (All statistics in the rest of this article, including the previous sentence, are based only on those consumers who had heard of gluten).

“The survey suggests a need for education and a clearer way to identify gluten-free food and ingredients for Americans that desire a gluten-free diet,” says a press release from NSF International. “This knowledge gap on where gluten is found can become problematic for those looking to buy gluten-free.”


Misperceptions of Labels and Regulations

If consumers are confused about which ingredients contain gluten, then it’s additionally problematic that 46% of respondents would first view the list of ingredients on product packaging to check for gluten. Further, more than half of respondents (54%) incorrectly believe products that use the words gluten-free are verified to be free from gluten, and only 31% of respondents would look for a gluten-free seal or mark as the first step to check if a product contains gluten.

There also appears to be an awareness gap about the regulation of gluten-free claims. Just 43% of respondents correctly believe the government regulates gluten-free claims on processed foods, while 33% of respondents incorrectly believe the government regulates claims made on restaurant and bakery menus.


Why Go Gluten-Free?

The top reason why respondents adopt a gluten-free lifestyle is due to a gluten allergy or sensitivity that causes stomach pain, bloating, vomiting, or intestinal issues (cited by 19% of respondents). Another 12% of respondents say they follow a gluten-free diet because it makes them feel healthier, and 9% of respondents self-identify as having Celiac disease.


Demographic Divide

The difference between the attitudes of younger adults (aged 18-34) and older adults (aged 65 and older) was also striking in the survey. Younger adults were more likely than older adults to claim to know what gluten is (62% vs. 48%), look for a gluten-free seal or mark first to determine if a product contains gluten (36% vs. 25%), or follow a gluten-free diet to lose weight (11% vs. 5%).


Survey Design

The ORC International survey included a sample of 1,012 adults living in the continental United States, aged 18 and older. Final data was then weighted by age, gender, region, race/ethnicity, and education to be representative of the U.S. adult population. The survey was fielded May 14 – 17, and included randomly selected landline and mobile telephone numbers. Results have a margin of error of +/-3% at the 95% confidence level.


Read more:

Weak Spots in the Gluten-Free Trend

Gluten-Free Foods Go Mainstream

Are Dietary Supplements Going Gluten-Free?


Michael Crane
Associate Editor
Nutritional Outlook Magazine

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