Gluten-free, dairy-free and other free-from foods once were relegated only to people with allergies to the top eight food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — which are responsible for a whopping 90 percent of all allergic reactions to food in the U.S. But now, many Americans purchase, eat and cook free-from foods voluntarily to avoid a host of other (what they consider) questionable ingredients, as well as to lose weight and to improve their general health.
Free-from foods and beverages have been an expanding segment in both sales and scope. For many, the category now includes products free of dairy ingredients, GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as antibiotics, growth hormones and artificial colors. The success of this category demonstrates that food these days can be described more by what's left out as much as what's put in. Whether it's trendy or medically necessary, free-from eating appears to be here to stay.
Market research firm Spins pegs the market at approximately $190.4 million. In the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, sales of allergen-free products rose 26.5 percent. Which stands to reason, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says food allergies now affect roughly one in 13 children.
Gluten-free appears to be the leading claim in this category. Celiac disease affects only 1 percent of the population, but the Celiac Disease Foundation says gluten-free living currently appeals to about 30 percent of American adults – and seems to be widely misunderstood.
"Overall, the gluten-free food market continues to thrive off of those who must maintain a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, as well as those who perceive gluten-free foods to be healthier or more natural," notes Amanda Topper, food analyst at Mintel. "The category will continue to grow in the near term, especially as FDA regulations make it easier for consumers to purchase gluten-free products and trust the manufacturers who make them. Despite strong growth over the last few years, there is still innovation opportunity, especially in food segments that typically contain gluten."
Gluten-free products appeal to a wide audience, Topper says, and 41 percent of U.S. adults believe they're beneficial for everyone, not only those with a gluten allergy, intolerance or sensitivity. "In response, food manufacturers offering either gluten-free alternatives or existing products with a gluten-free label have increased dramatically over the last several years," she adds.
Once a great challenge to develop, free-from foods now span market categories, and are getting easier to formulate, as free-from ingredients are more readily available. It's getting a lot easier to bake gluten-free products, says Kasondra Shippen, general manager at Flax4Life (flax4life.net), a Bellingham, Wash. baker of certified gluten-free flax muffins, brownies, granola and other items. "There are tons of options in the store now that make living a gluten-free lifestyle easy. Although there are more options out there, nutrition is still lacking. We want the things we produce to have nutritional benefits, so we make sure that flax is a main ingredient and use all natural, non-GMO ingredients. And our products are loaded with omega-3, fiber, protein and lignans."
Flax4Life produces its products in a dedicated facility that's free of gluten, dairy and nuts (exception coconut), so that it accommodates families with extreme dietary restrictions. However, she adds, "The most important thing is that the products must taste delicious."
Shippen says she has no trouble finding the needed natural ingredients. "Lots of trial and error goes into product development. We like to keep our ingredients simple and easily understood. We use organic evaporated cane sugar, and some consumers want things to be grain-free, which our brownies are. We've had many requests to remove egg whites from the products, but egg helps immensely in the world of gluten-free baking. In the future, we plan to offer more bake-at-home options and other home baking staples."
Quinn Snacks (www.quinnsnacks.com), Boulder, Colo., makes its new non-GMO pretzels gluten-free as well as free of dairy, soy and corn. It chose Kansas whole-grain sorghum flour, organic wild blossom honey, apple cider vinegar and brown rice and potato flour among its other "real" ingredients. Its ingredient sourcing practices are careful and thorough, claims Kristy Homes-Lewis, co-founder and CEO. Distinguishing Quinn's products from other free-from snacks is its "farm-to-bag" tracking capabilities that monitor ingredients back to the source. All of Quinn's products are traceable on its website, so consumers can find supplier information and explanations about each ingredient.