Riding the Free-From Movement

Allergen-friendly and free-from foods are in such high demand, the new food category is beginning to revolutionize the way people eat.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Food labels and ingredient statements are under great scrutiny these days, and food processors and marketers are increasingly being affected by consumer moves to avoid gluten, dairy, soy and other ingredients. Consumers are increasingly more discerning and educated when it comes to food and beverages and want more "free-from" or allergen-free foods. And they want these foods to be nutritious and to taste good.

The gluten-free market alone has gained quite a bit more traction with increased appetizing product launches and is landing a permanent place in the food industry, Mintel reports. Demand for gluten-free and other free-from products continues to climb, as the technology to diagnose diet-related allergies and gluten and lactose intolerances keeps improving.

Early on though, the taste and texture of gluten-free and free-from foods were lacking, but updated formulations and improved ingredient systems are changing that, says Paula Connelly, vice president of innovation at Bare Snacks, San Francisco. "Until recently, allergen-free snacks earned a negative reputation for being devoid of flavor, texture and in some cases, nutrition," she says. "Today, there’s a shift in this reputation, as more brands pride themselves on products that are allergen-friendly but don’t feel like a sacrifice."

BareApple ChipsBare Snack's organic Fuji Red Crunchy, Cinnamon Crunchy and Granny Smith Crunchy apple chips, are Non-GMO Project-verified, gluten-free, dairy-free and free of refined sugar, preservatives, cholesterol and trans fats. "There are a growing number of consumers who are discovering they have food allergies and sensitivities and are returning to real food and snacks that are less processed," Connelly adds. "Brands have to adapt their product lines and ingredient sources to accommodate these needs and demands, especially considering that cross contamination is such a huge issue for those affected by food allergies. We start with ingredients that are naturally allergen-free and therefore take the guesswork out of dissecting a nutritional label."

The overall free-from foods market is estimated at $12 billion. Free-from includes gluten-free products as well as eight allergens known as the “Big Eight”: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. Sesame and sunflower seeds can often be added to that list, and generally accepted free-from definitions can also include no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), additives or preservatives.

Although the debate about GMOs remains controversial in terms of science, safety and regulatory issues, consumer/customer demand for GMO-free foods is ubiquitous and building steam as more food companies label their products as non-GMO.

Four out of 10 consumers claim they avoid or eliminate GMO foods in their daily diets, mainly because they're concerned about possible impact GMOs have on their health, says an organic and natural report from The Hartman Group. In response to these consumers, new non-GMO product launches more than doubled in the U.S. in 2013, and went up 10.2 percent in 2014, according to Mintel.

"Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans are affected by food allergies, which means the opportunity is there for brands to answer consumer demand with products that taste great and are allergen-friendly," Connelly adds. "Brands able to adapt and evolve will see a positive response from consumers, as they will fill a gap that has existed in the allergen-friendly food space for some time."

Formulating allergen-free foods has come a long way in terms of texture and nutrition, agrees Jennifer Stephens, director of marketing at Fiberstar, River Falls, Wis., maker of the Citri-Fi line of multi-functional clean-label fibers. "Nutritional profiles used to lack attention. Today, some allergen-free foods taste as good as or better than their counterparts," she says.

In the past, formulators defaulted to using what was available to replace allergen components, such as rice and conventional starches such as corn, potato and tapioca, Connelly explains. "Today, gluten-free options include sorghum, tapioca, fava bean, brown rice, black bean and garbanzo flour. Some of these provide enhanced fiber, vitamins and minerals that improve the nutritional profile of the gluten-free products. And formulators are now equipped with functional fibers that not only have functional benefits of starch but can be claimed as fiber on food packaging."

Gluten-free issues

Though only 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from or has been formally diagnosed with celiac disease (defined as a complete intolerance to gluten), consumers who either don't have a medical need or for some reason consider gluten-free products healthier are significantly increasing their purchases of gluten-free products.

Foods containing gluten are those most avoided by consumers. According to a January 2015 Packaged Facts report, sales of gluten-free products in grain-based categories alone posted a 34 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), and sales are significantly higher in terms of all categories. In November 2014, Mintel, estimated that gluten-free food sales would reach $8.8 billion in 2014, up 63 percent from 2012 to 2014. Wheat comes in at a close second, as another five to 10 percent of consumers believe they may have some sort of wheat intolerance.

While gluten hasn't yet made it to the top eight allergens, last August FDA set formal standards for gluten-free labeling in the U.S.:

  • A product must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) detectable level of gluten.
  • A product cannot contain wheat, rye, barley or crossbred hybrids, such as triticale.
  • A product that contains a gluten-containing grain or ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to less than 20 ppm (Oats that contain less than 20 ppm of gluten may be labeled “gluten-free” but do not need to be certified as gluten free).
  • Products that are naturally gluten-free, such as bottled water or fresh produce.

A facility that processes both traditional and free-from products (a bakery, for example) must keep the allergen ingredients separate from the nonallergens, otherwise there could be cross-contamination and other unexpected sources of gluten, which can make or break a gluten-free product’s labeling status.

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