Riding the Free-From Movement

June 3, 2015
Allergen-friendly and free-from foods are in such high demand, the new food category is beginning to revolutionize the way people eat.

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."

Bare 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.

That's why Enjoy Life Foods, Schiller Park, Ill., decided from the beginning to make only gluten-free and free-from cookies, bars and sweet treats. Even so, Enjoy Life must constantly check, recheck and re-examine its ingredients, processes, sources of supply and much more to ensure that its products really are "free-from." The company makes just about all of its products at its dedicated gluten-free and free-from facility.

Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer, says Enjoy Life's free-from products make the claim of being made with “No Artificial Anything,” which he says better explains Enjoy Life's stance than would the term “'all natural,' which can sometimes be confusing."

Enjoy Life’s Soft Baked and Crunchy cookies, baking chocolate (which is produced without emulsifiers or soy), cereals, granola, bars and seed and fruit mixes are also verified non-GMO through the Non-GMO Project and are kosher- and halal-certified.

Texture, apperance, crumb, crust and especially taste are some of the key characteristics of a quality baked product in the eyes (or mouths) of consumers, but are often difficult to re-create in a gluten-free/allergy-free version, Warady acknowledges. "A good percentage of our products are baked goods," he points out. "Because our products are both gluten-free and free from the top eight allergens, we first must find grains and flours that meet our brand promise, like buckwheat, millet, teff and quinoa. Then we find ingredients that can be used as a binder. But because we don’t use eggs or dairy, finding unique all-natural solutions always poses an interesting challenge."

Fortunately for free-from consumers, Enjoy Life's products are tasty even to those without food sensitivities. "Our products have to taste great, period," Warady states. "Years ago, if a product was simply allergen-friendly, but tasted 'just OK,' people who needed the products were satisfied," he says. "Today, they expect free-from products to taste just as good, if not better, than allergen-filled products. We spend a considerable amount of time and resources making certain our products taste superior to other products in the snack-food category."

It helps that availability of allergen-friendly ingredients is greater than it used to be, he continues. "This allows us to develop great-tasting products for people living with food allergies and intolerances. The ingredients we use are both allergy-friendly and functional. Proteins are important right now, so we get proteins from things like rice protein and teff flour."

Enjoy Life's 46-plus free-from products have experienced double-digit growth recently, and the company just launched a line of allergen-friendly baking mixes and an allergy-friendly probiotic. "We think functional ingredients that are allergy-friendly could be one of the next big trends," Warady says. "Functionality has become more sophisticated."

Allergen-free foods also must be nutritious, he points out. "We also look for healthy ingredients. We don't use any artificial ingredients in any of our products, and all of our ingredients are verified non-GMO. It's not enough to simply replace allergens, we want to do so with only the best and healthiest ingredients."

Steve Taylor, a professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Dept. of Food Science & Technology and co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource program, echoes Warady's assessment: "Several major companies have entered the [gluten-free] market with multiple products, such as General Mills for example. Because of their involvement, with significant R&D resources, products in the gluten-free category to become quite excellent.

"Allergen-free ingredients are now much more likely to be thoroughly tested for allergen residues," Taylor continues. "For the most part, reliable test methods didn't exist until the late 1990s. But with appropriate testing, the reliability of these ingredients has improved."

Should eggs stay in the formula?

Though eggs are on the list of eight major food allergens, eggs are non-GMO, gluten-free and can be used to replace certain ingredients, such as gluten, depending on the application. "There is no single (one-to-one) replacement for eggs in a formulation," states Shelly McKee, spokesperson for the American Egg Board, Park Ridge, Ill. "A combination of different ingredients often are blended together to try to replicate egg functionality. This diverse body of ingredients means research results are difficult to standardize, and results will vary from one application to another. Eggs can provide replacement protein and can aid with moisture retention in gluten-free applications."

Each component of a gluten-free formulation matters, says McKee, because even miniscule amounts of gluten can add up collectively within a formulation. Eggs can also contribute to a clean label, she says.

Elisa Maloberti, director of egg product marketing at the AEB, points to results from the 2013 International Food Information Council's Health and Wellness annual survey, which shows that 93 percent of consumers prefer to see common names for ingredients on their labels. "Some retailers have responded to consumers’ concerns about GMO food ingredients by adopting initiatives to require labeling of such ingredients," Roberti says. "Whether companies decide to position their products as clean-label, gluten-free, or GMO-free, functional egg products can help deliver results consumers crave."

If eggs can't be used in certain free-from applications, there are alternatives. Stephens says that Citri-Fi, Fiberstar's fiber line derived from citrus, provides moisture retention in gluten-free baked goods and can also help partially replace eggs or be used in conjunction with egg replacement systems as well as oil reduction.

Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, Wis., has developed technology that brings ancient grains into today's gluten-free arena, with its next-generation products such as gluten-free chia, sorghum, amaranth and quinoa. These grains are also kosher, non-GMO and can meet the demand for free-from products, says Nicole Rees, business development manager. Helping take these grains to the next level is Glanbia's recently opened food-grade grain-processing facility in Sioux Falls S.D.

"Protein fortification is hot right now, and all allergens are proteins," Rees points out. "The free-from trend is complex from a manufacturer’s perspective, because one person’s poison is another’s health food — like soy or tree nuts. For food companies, this often means creating line extensions to cast the widest net possible. R&D is complex for protein fortification, because what works in an ultra-high temperature, pH-neutral beverage may not work at all for a sports bar. Plenty of testing is needed to achieve a blend just right for processing ease, good texture and a longer shelf life."

Rees cautions that one challenge with allergen-free protein fortification is that often a highly functional ingredient such as whey protein must be removed. "Some proteins can be very specialized and unique, so it's very difficult to find a substitute that can achieve the same results."

Snacking happier

More food companies getting into the snack food goldmine are expanding their offerings with allergen-free snacks. In November, Ian's Natural Foods, Framingham, Mass., began heating up sales with its launch of frozen Sriracha Fire Sticks, allergy-friendly, gluten-free chicken snacks, revved up with a zesty sriracha sauce. The sticks are made with whole-grain, gluten-free breading and white meat from antibiotic- and cage-free chickens. They contain no wheat, milk, casein, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts or soy. Ian’s products have no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives because consumers demand a clear understanding of what ingredients are in their food, states CEO Chuck Marble.

In March, Snyder's-Lance Inc., Charlotte, N.C., launched what it says is the "industry's first gluten-free" sandwich cracker. Available nationally in cheddar cheese and peanut butter flavors, the gluten-free whole-grain cracker joins more than 40 new products being launched nationally this year under Snyder-Lance's Cape Cod, Snyder's of Hanover, Snack Factory, Pretzel Crisps and Lance brands.

Snyder's-Lance's research indicates that nearly one in three adults either wants to cut back on gluten or be gluten-free, while 77 percent of people who buy gluten-free products claim they have a difficult time find good-tasting, gluten-free foods. "We have stepped up to the plate to offer a variety of flavorful, gluten-free options that do not sacrifice taste," explains Carl Lee Jr., president and CEO of Snyder's-Lance. "All of these products reflect our passion for premium, differentiated snacking."

While also on the top eight allergen list, nuts can be successfully used in making free-from replacement products, especially gluten-free applications. Blanched almond flour, for example, has become an effective swap for wheat flour in gluten-free breads and is gaining popularity among both consumers and food processors. Hughson Nut Inc. (www.hughsonnut.com), a Hughson, Calif., business that sells gluten-free almond flour as well as almonds, is enjoying a sales growth splurge, says Martin Pohl, managing partner.

Natural almond flour and meal add texture, color and almond flavor, he says, and are easy to incorporate into many formulations. They're also higher in protein, fiber, calcium, vitamin E, riboflavin and niacin than other tree nuts. "We have seen double digit growth in almond flour, with so many consumers looking to incorporate alternative gluten-free flour into their diet," Pohl states.

As an allergen-free alternative to nuts, Snack Out Loud, Louisville, Colo., which markets roasted, seasoned pinto beans grown by family farmers, is pegging its Crunchy Bean Snacks as a portable, plant-based snack that's gluten-, GMO-, soy- and nut-free, but satisfies just the same. "We make snacks that are fun to eat, deliver great nutrition and taste and are inherently free from common allergens," says Liz Myslik, Snack Out Loud's chief "bean" (CEO), who sees a trend toward plant-based protein options. “We formulate with ingredients and products that are naturally allergen free and nutrient dense as the base for ready to eat snacks, and find new ways to deliver them," Myslik says.

Pulse flours and pulse proteins in fact are also emerging trends in allergen replacement, says Dilek Uzunalioglu, business scientist at Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. "When replacing allergens, we need to meet consumer needs for taste, texture, quality, label preference and nutrition. Our gluten-free ingredients are top sellers but recently we began seeing more interest in pulse products to replace allergens like soy, plus interest in our egg replacement solutions."

Ingredion's gluten-free offerings include Homecraft Create GF 10 and 20 rice and tapioca flours for bakery applications, Homecraft Pulse flours, Vitessence pulse proteins and Precisa Bake GF gluten-free, modified tapioca, potato and corn starches. Ingredion also provides Precisa Bake 100, which is used to replace egg whites and whole eggs in allergen-free applications like retorted pasta.

Now more than ever, it's up to brands to be transparent in their ingredient and nutritional claims. People have a right to know exactly what's in their food, how it's made and who makes it, Myslik summarizes. "For folks with food allergies, it's a matter of health and safety. More transparency is better."

In the future, consumers won't have to look as far to find free-from foods or foods with clean labels. "Brands should really be the ones setting the tone or baseline for responsible and conscious product development and marketing," Connelly says. "Those with food allergies must be extremely careful consuming ingredients that have the potential to trigger an allergic reaction. This has created a heightened demand for clean [label] nutrition panels that are easy to read and understand."

Brands will adapt, which means the market is wide open for these products. "Free-from is not a fad," Warady concludes. "It's part of the revolutionary change in the way people are eating."

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