What is ‘free-from food’?

What exactly does free from products mean? Why do more and more people want to eat foods that were initially for people with allergies and hypersensitivity? And what is the link to ‘natural’ products? In this article, we want to highlight a segment that is just growing and growing.

24 January 2020 •

Free-from food is a term that has start­ed to be used as an umbrel­la term for food that is free from some­thing. The demand is ris­ing and not just by con­sumers with aller­gies and hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty. But why? And what does that mean for the food pro­duc­ers? We will find out.

What is included in the term?

There is no real def­i­n­i­tion of free-from food. It can be for vir­tu­al­ly all types of food. Sometimes it may be the absence of an ingre­di­ent that is a cor­ner­stone of the food, for exam­ple, the absence of lac­tose in dairy prod­ucts. But it can also include the prepa­ra­tion of the food as in the case of GMO-free prod­ucts. Here we have some of the most common:

  • Gluten-free
  • Lactose-free
  • Fat-free
  • Sugar-free
  • Free from nuts
  • Free from flour
  • Salt-free
  • No preser­v­a­tives
  • No addi­tives
  • Wheat-free
  • Without yeast
  • Free from soy
  • GMO-free
  • Egg-free
  • Meat-free

Part of a larger trend

Free From Food Expo is an annu­al fair in alter­na­tive foods. As the name implies, free-from food is at the cen­ter, but the fair also cov­ers near­by areas such as organ­ic food, veg­an food, func­tion­al food, health ingre­di­ents, and plas­tic-free packaging.

All of these areas are some­times inter­con­nect­ed. You will eas­i­ly find an organ­ic alter­na­tive that also is free-from food. For exam­ple, peanut but­ter that is organ­ic as well as sugar-free.

Market research firm Mordor Intelligence esti­mates that the glob­al free-from-food mar­ket will grow by almost 10 per­cent annu­al­ly between 2020 and 2025. Gluten and lac­tose-free foods have the largest mar­ket share.

Who and what drives the trend?

In the ear­ly days, free-from food was for peo­ple who, pure­ly med­ical­ly, could not tol­er­ate cer­tain sub­stances and ingre­di­ents. This group is of course still present, but inter­est in free-from food has spread to ordi­nary con­sumers with­out med­ical needs. Celebrities and oth­er influ­en­tial peo­ple keep the trend alive by advo­cat­ing free-from-food in lifestyle mag­a­zines, social media, and oth­er media. The amer­i­can actress Gwyneth Paltrow is a telling exam­ple. Through Goop’s lifestyle mag­a­zine, she has cre­at­ed a plat­form for every­thing relat­ed to health and well-being.

Food as a status marker

Influencers like Paltrow dri­ve the notion that free-from food is a health­i­er option, even for peo­ple who have no aller­gies or hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty. There is still a belief about health and well­ness ben­e­fits with free-from food, but the choice is also an acces­so­ry and a sta­tus mark­er with an impor­tant state­ment: I am con­scious, mod­ern and I care about what I eat.

Shopping for food is still part of the pub­lic space (although nowa­days there are alter­na­tives such as home deliv­ery). When we are in the gro­cery store, plac­ing our goods on the cashier desk, we are not anony­mous. What kind of ice cream, milk or pas­ta do we want to show off and be asso­ci­at­ed with?

Removing and adding

The indus­try is con­stant­ly get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter at devel­op­ing sub­sti­tutes. Free-from is no longer the bad-tast­ing alter­na­tive. Both taste and tex­ture have improved sig­nif­i­cant­ly in recent decades. This has obvi­ous­ly been a pre­req­ui­site for attract­ing new cus­tomer segments.

Okay, sounds good. Surely it is just to remove an ingre­di­ent and put on a ‘free from’ label?

Not quite.

Natural

Free-from food also includes foods that are free from, for exam­ple, fla­vor, colour, and tex­ture enhancers. It is pos­si­ble to draw a par­al­lel between the free-from food and the inter­est of ‘nat­ur­al’ foods and ingre­di­ents. Certainly, there are addi­tives and sub­sti­tutes that are of nat­ur­al ori­gins, such as ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides and cit­ric acid. But despite this, many con­sumers place sim­i­lar­i­ties between additive/​substitute and arti­fi­cial. Free-from food is there­fore per­ceived as some­thing natural.

In the past, food man­u­fac­tur­ers have been focus­ing on nat­ur­al ingre­di­ents, or at least ingre­di­ents that con­sumers per­ceive as nat­ur­al. This is still true, but is it enough? The con­sumers in this tar­get group are becom­ing more and more inter­est­ed in the entire sup­ply chain. You want to keep track of sub­con­trac­tors and col­lab­o­ra­tions. The term nat­ur­al, there­fore, has a wider dimension.

What do the researchers say?

Researchers also have dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of what is natural.

In the meta-study, The impor­tance of food nat­u­ral­ness for con­sumers: Results of a sys­tem­at­ic review from 2017, the authors have com­piled data from 72 stud­ies in 32 coun­tries. The result is crys­tal clear; Most peo­ple pre­fer foods that they per­ceive as natural.

The study has tak­en a clos­er look at how con­sumers judge food and found that con­sumers take an inter­est in the fol­low­ing categories.

The first category:

Consumers care about how raw mate­ri­als come into being. Local and organ­ic grow­ing and farm­ing are still top of mind. Consumers per­ceive the local and organ­ic being bet­ter than large scale indus­tri­al food production.

The second category:

This is about the ingre­di­ents used and how the pro­duc­tion process goes. Consumers are more inter­est­ed in the absence of unwant­ed addi­tives than the pres­ence of nat­ur­al sub­sti­tutes. But it is still impor­tant that the sub­sti­tutes are not pro­duced syn­thet­i­cal­ly but appear nat­ur­al. Marketing con­sul­tants Healthy Marketing Team are men­tion­ing inulin as a prod­uct grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty, in the 2020 trend report on glob­al game-chang­ers. Inulin can be used in sug­ar reduction.

The third category:

Finally, we come to the final prod­uct that the con­sumer finds on the shelf. The con­sumer assess­es the over­all expe­ri­ence of the prod­uct. It involves the whole prod­uct — what the pack­ag­ing looks like, what it says on it, how it feels and taste like.

Take a holistic approach

The three dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories that con­sumers judge foods upon, nat­u­ral­ly place great strains on food pro­duc­ers. It is impor­tant to ensure that the pro­duc­tion of raw mate­ri­als is per­ceived as organ­ic or local. But also that any addi­tives, part­ners and replace­ment prod­ucts are per­ceived as nat­ur­al, and that the over­all expe­ri­ence of the prod­uct meets or exceeds the customer’s expec­ta­tions. You can not cut any cor­ners in this line of business.

A telling exam­ple is the Japanese brand Daiya which made great suc­cess with its veg­an cheese, how­ev­er, dark clouds start­ed to appear when phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny Otsuka bought Daiya.

But what do phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies do? That’s right, ani­mal test­ings. The con­se­quence was boy­cotts and bad pub­lic­i­ty. In the eyes of the con­sumers, Daiya was no longer a veg­an alter­na­tive (read: ani­mal-friend­ly and nat­u­ral­ly), although the prod­uct as such was still the same.

How are food producers affected?

Free-from food is a great chal­lenge for food com­pa­nies aspir­ing to be rel­e­vant in this seg­ment. If some­thing is to be removed, it must often be replaced by some­thing else. It is always dif­fi­cult to devel­op new ingre­di­ents on your own (how, for exam­ple, do you replace one kilo of sug­ar with three grams of ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides?) but you are up for a real chal­lenge when your prod­ucts also have to be per­ceived as natural.

Therefore, many com­pa­nies need to seek help from oth­er com­pa­nies that spe­cial­ize in devel­op­ing new ingre­di­ents and food tech­nol­o­gy solutions.

In the meta-study already men­tioned, the authors pro­pose that food pro­duc­ers should ana­lyze how the food will be per­ceived by con­sumers, dur­ing prod­uct devel­op­ment. It is empha­sized how impor­tant it is to see the prod­uct in its entire­ty and not over­look any step in the prod­uct life cycle. It is already easy for con­sumers to find valu­able (read: sen­si­tive) infor­ma­tion. And it will be even easier…

The future

The tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment will enable trace­abil­i­ty in the food chain in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way than we are used to. This can be both an oppor­tu­ni­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. If you can show­case a prod­uct with fan­tas­tic ingre­di­ents, remark­able sub­con­trac­tors and a sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion process, there are good pre­req­ui­sites for build­ing a strong brand. We may also see more strin­gent legal require­ments in this area as tech­nol­o­gy advances.

It is hard to be spe­cif­ic about what par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges that lie ahead of your prod­uct. But we can at least be cer­tain that free-from food is part of the major chal­lenges fac­ing the food indus­try. And it is not always as sim­ple as remov­ing an ingre­di­ent and replac­ing it with a sticker.

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