The "free-from" phenomenon has caught on in the U.S., and last year Innova Market Insights identified free-from as a hot trend for 2016. As Americans continue to be affected by food allergens and intolerances, more than ever, they want to know what's in their food, where it comes from and the details about how it's made.
That's no easy feat for product formulators, but developing gluten- and allergen-free foods is getting easier, and more food companies are expanding their offerings. There's even a gluten-free vodka. Stolichnaya's Stoli Gluten Free vodka hit stores in April, thanks to the growing interest in gluten-free diets.
But protecting people from even more, the Top Eight major food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — has been a growing segment among many food companies over the past decade. The largest portion of the free-from market is in gluten-free foods, with sales reaching $11.6 billion in 2015, according to Mintel. There's even a free-from/gluten-free tradeshow called GF & AF Expo, held in various regions across the country this year. Sales are still growing, at 25 percent, though consumers intolerant of or sensitive to gluten aren't the only target group any more. Thus, companies are building and installing dedicated production areas for as many free-from ingredients as they can.
Relevancy in center-store
Food facilities are taking preventive measures to control or at least separate allergens, as specified by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) making allergen control a fundamental prerequisite for safe processing. Well versed in such production is Enjoy Life Foods, Chicago, which has a dedicated "allergen-friendly" production facility also avoids Canada's 12 priority food allergens, which include the U.S. Top Eight, as well as sulfites, crustaceans, sesame and mustard, and is also devoid of celery and lupin, both on the office EU allergens list.
Flourishing in the free-from sector, and after much success with its cookies, chips, baking mixes and trail mixes, the company this summer will debut a line called ProBurst Bites grab-and-go protein snacks and a line of mini cookies in soft-baked and crunchy versions, says CEO Scott Mandell. Next year, it will focus on the snacking category to further its growth.
"We will also be improving our nutritional profiles and ingredient decks," he adds. "With consumers looking to eat healthier, the center of store has definitely felt the negative impact. Consumers look for cleaner labels more than they look for products that have less calories or fat. They'll continue to shop the perimeter of the store more significantly than in the past, but I still believe there's tremendous opportunity in center of the store, if the industry provides consumers with better and more relevant options."
Free-from foods not only have to be made without allergen ingredients, they still also have to taste good and be nutritious. "We find gluten-free to be the biggest allergen issue with our consumers," says Jill Litwin, founder & CEO of Peas of Mind,, a San Francisco company specializing in foods for kids 12 months and up. "Our line of Veggie French Fries are gluten-free, vegan and have no grams of fat per serving. The milkshake kits are gluten-free and have no added sugar and our Veggie Tots are gluten-free. We also have products that are soy- and dairy-free," she says. "But products also need to taste good, and millennial moms want to know their kids are eating good food. Transparent, recognizable ingredients are important to millennial moms."
Annie's Homegrown, Berkeley, Calif., has debuted its latest Pea B&J Pockets, which feature golden pea butter, which it says are a convenient and tasty option for children with peanut allergies or for parents whose children attend peanut policy schools (a growing percentage of U.S. schools K-12).
The right ingredients
Gluten-free is probably the hottest free-from category, so many ingredient companies are supplying products for that segment.
Blue Diamond's gluten-free almond flour can be used for various product formulations (though it's obviously not for people with nut allergies). The flour provides nutrients that can sometimes be lacking in gluten-free-baked goods, such as iron, calcium, fiber and protein, the Sacramento, Calif., operation reports. The flour works in sweet and savory formulations as coatings, in cakes, muffins and breads and in crackers to stay crisp.