Simply rejecting the standard over-processed American diet in favor of fresh food and home cooking used to be victory enough. But the special-diet landscape has fractured into massive subsets shaped less by outsider status than by forces of scale, consumer trust, and consistency. The gluten-free tribe represents a roughly $22 billion market segment, paleo has ridden CrossFit into the mainstream, organic is now an expectation, and entire brands live and die by adherence to—or avoidance of—terms like “non-GMO,” “plant-based,” and “local.”
Overall, NBJ estimates that the special-diets category will reach $144 billion by 2018, a scale that has massive ramifications from farm to shelf. Last year alone, sales reached $92 billion, nearly 50 percent more than the estimated $64 billion total spent on natural and organic products.
It helps to think about the path we’re on—as individuals and as an industry—in terms of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Here we replace Maslow’s third and fourth levels—“love and belonging” and self-esteem,” respectively—with “health/body issues” and “food tribes.” For the purposes of this report, we’re focusing on that latter group, where food choices have moved beyond issues of hunger, availability, or even a vague desire to be “healthy,” to personal values and questions of actual identity. Diets in those the three levels get at how people eat. Those in the green section get at how people live and how they define themselves.