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.
Transparency and sustainability are critical to Quinn Snacks, Homes-Lewis says. "We work only with growers and suppliers who share our vision," she says. That vision includes sourcing organic ingredients when it can and giving business to other green businesses.
Riverside Natural Foods (www.madegood.com), Vaughan, Ontario, "doesn't try to replicate existing products with GF ingredients," says Nima Fotovat, president. "Developing allergen-free product is the same process as any product. We start with the best, freshest ingredients from reliable suppliers who can offer certified allergen-free credentials, and process them minimally to preserve the original nutrients as much as possible. We conduct limited consumer testing to ensure that taste is delivered."
Riverside's MadeGood Crispy Squares, launched in January in vanilla and chocolate chip flavors, are a free-from alternative to the traditional crispy square favorite. Certified USDA organic and non-GMO, Made Good granola bars are free from gluten and the eight common allergens.
"We expect the [free-from] market to continue to grow, as the incidence of food allergies and sensitivities continue to grow," Fotovat adds. "The reasons behind the growth of food allergy incidence, particularly among children, is not yet well understood, and no medical solutions are available to impact this widespread issue."
Nature’s Path Foods (www.naturespath.com), Richmond, British Columbia, makes certified organic cereals, bars, breakfast biscuits, cookies and more; but an increasing part of its portfolio is gluten-free, wheat-free, non-GMO and vegan. Arjan Stephens, executive vice president, says free-from foods have overtaken health-based trends. "Our gluten-free options are unlike others that compromise on nutrients, add ingredients or adjust formulations to help make them taste more appealing. They taste as good as they are for you, whether you're avoiding gluten or not."
The company recently unveiled a handy pouched granola, expanding its line with three new flavors in a resealable standup bag: Coconut & Cashew, Vanilla Pumpkin Seed and Blueberry Pecan. They're made with fiber-rich, whole grains and superfoods such as chia seeds, coconut, dried blueberries and cashew butter.
Still formulation challenges
In most cases, there are still challenges developing free-from foods, although not as many as in the past. "Wheat flour has many functional attributes that are difficult to replace, as well as a very clean flavor profile," points out Peggy Dantuma, director of technical sales-bakery at Kerry Inc. (www.kerry.com), Beloit, Wis. "In many cases, it’s not just a matter of finding an alternate protein source, but replicating the structural properties gluten lends to a formula through a different means altogether, such as the use of starches and hydrocolloids. Many gluten-free bakery products rely on egg whites for structure, but this adds an allergen to the formulation, and also can be affected by price fluctuations."
Often, the higher fat and sodium levels needed to improve flavor can compromise the overall nutritional profile, she adds. "Our understanding of the fundamental science of nutrition allows us to work with customers to clean up labels and develop [free-from] without compromising taste and nutrition."
How it develops free-from products largely depends on the application, Dantuma says. "We typically look at the overall formula or ingredient statement and highlight any ingredients that may be scrutinized or be on a customer or consumer 'no-no list.' Then, we review the functionality of the different components and determine what ingredients can be substituted that have the same or similar functionality without a negative connotation. In most cases, it's better and more cost-effective to remove as many of these ingredients in one reformulation than focusing on just one ingredient at a time."
Free-from foods take a tremendous amount of time, patience, and trial and error to create, says Andrew Strolin, vice president of marketing at Nature's Bakery (www.naturesbakery.com), Reno, Nev. Strolin admits. "We had to find the right blend of ancient grains, which required researching and vetting various suppliers." Its new ancient grains gluten-free fig bars incorporate a blend of amaranth, teff and sorghum. Besides original fig, they're available with pomegranate, raspberry and blueberry fillings. The soft textured bars are also free of trans fats, soy, dairy, cholesterol, artificial flavors and colors and high-fructose corn syrup.
We wanted [the] certification because many shoppers look for it called out on products. We use the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), an industry program of the Gluten Intolerance Group, that reviews quality assessments and controls measures in production," he explains. "It takes time and paperwork, which can be a challenge if you’re on a specific research and development track.
"We take the extra step to create products that are Non-GMO Project-verified, vegan and kosher certified, because we care about the quality of the product," he continues. Testing small batches of product to dial in taste and texture can also be challenging when you hold high expectations for quality, Strolin explains. "That's why we didn’t immediately bring the gluten-free product to market when we recognized the need. We wanted to take our time and ensure our gluten-free bars met the same level of quality and taste as our original Stone Ground Whole Wheat Fig Bars."
Nature's Bakery recently unveiled organic brownies and Honey & Oat Soft Baked Bars that are free of dairy, soy and GMOs, as well as being kosher. "Before releasing the new line, we undertook several consumer focus group reviews with individuals who had gluten sensitivities and those who didn’t," Strolin mentions. "We used the feedback to dial in taste and texture, our primary objectives in terms of product development."
"The industry has really come a long way from the thinking that free-from products are just for consumers with dietary restrictions or food allergies." he says. "They recognize gluten-free foods must reflect lifestyle choices. If you use high-quality ingredients, taste and performance will always follow."