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.
Ardent Mills has an "Ancient Grains" portfolio of amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. They're all gluten-free options that work well in most bakery applications while also boosting whole grain nutrition and fiber. They are available in a variety of forms, including custom multigrain blends, mixes and gluten-free all-purpose 51 percent whole multigrain flour blend.
Because they don’t contain gluten, however, developers will need to consider their impact on volume and or crumb structure in the finished baked applications, says Don Trouba, director of marketing. "Typically when gluten-containing ingredients are decreased due to the addition of Ancient Grains, mix times are usually shorter," he says. "For gluten free applications, it’s important to remember these ingredients usually hold more water than native starch, so adjustments to moisture are often needed. And although some structure can come from Ancient Grains, other starches and protein are usually still necessary. Our R&D and technical team has extensive experience working with these grains in conventional and gluten free applications. We find collaboration to be a powerful tool, both for determining which grains to use and in understanding their impact on processing."
The flour base plays an important role in making gluten-free foods that have a desirable taste and texture, adds Angela Ichwan, Ardent Mills' senior director of research and technical solutions. "An important strategy in developing gluten-free baked goods and other grain-based foods to is to use blends of different gluten-free flours and starches and to customize the flour blend for the recipe. For example, whole sorghum flour works well in foods that are comparatively higher in moisture such as breads and muffins, but a high inclusion level of sorghum can impart grittiness in certain types of cookies."
While once laden with gluten, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., has been building a portfolio of ingredients free of a number of allergens. Its marketing materials promise "Gluten-free pizza with a satisfying, chewy crust. Mayonnaise that makes a tangy sandwich spread without help from eggs… Reduced-sugar canned fruit without artificial sweeteners … Meat substitutes with Vitessence pulse proteins."
The company claims it can help processors formulate foods and beverages that are: dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, gelatin-free, soy-free, as well as kosher, halal, vegan and vegetarian.
In particular, new pulse-based proteins feature dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Consumers' right to know
While GMOs are not on any allergen lists, plenty of consumers are avoiding them. The pending enactment July 1 of Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling bill has stepped up the need for a national regulation for labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients.
Mandell says he's "not in favor of the state-by-state approach to the GMO issue. Legislation should occur on a national level, as the consumer has a right to know. In 2012, we made the decision that all Enjoy Life products will be non-GMO-verified."
Bunge Milling's line of non-GMO project-verified milled corn products are aimed at development of corn grits, meals and flour milled from non-bioengineered corn. "Representatives of major brands are clearly interested in non-GMO corn products, but that couldn't happen unless we initiated some type of program," said Wade Ellis, Bunge North America Milling vice president.
Last year, the St. Louis company acquired non-GMO expeller-pressed oil manufacturer Whole Harvest Foods as part of its efforts to boost food manufacturers' access to non-GMO ingredients. Its soybean, canola and sunflower seeds are expeller-pressed to produce clean and highly stable oil ingredients, it says. The non-GMO seeds are grown on a fourth-generation family farm in Ontario.
The food industry is evolving for the better, Mandell says, largely driven by proactive consumers tired of products that either don't fit their personal beliefs or their preferred diet. "Entrepreneurship in the food industry has been significant, due to changing views providing opportunities to be innovative," he adds. "Now that larger CPG businesses have taken a more active approach (whether that's to build or to buy), the trend is most definitely toward better-for-you products."