Enjoy Life Foods, free-from
Enjoy Life Foods products are free from dairy, egg, fish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, shellfish, wheat, mustard, sesame and sulfites.

CHICAGO — Once a descriptor used mostly with macronutrients like fat and sugar on foods designed for special diets and weight-loss plans, “free” is now one of the most used words among food marketers. The elimination of food ingredients and components from everyday foods resonates with consumers on avoidance diets, and the number of such consumers is growing, either for real medical reasons or perceived wellness benefits.

Researchers estimate about 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. The figure continues to rise annually, and scientists are not sure why. The C.D.C. found that allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011, and today, approximately one in every 13 children (under 18 years of age) in the United States has one or more food allergies.

Avoidance of potentially deadly allergens is the only known way to prevent the auto-immune reaction that follows consumption. Reactions range from anaphylactic shock to gastrointestinal distress to hives/rash.

Some people experience adverse reactions to food components, namely to gluten and lactose. Described as intolerances or sensitivities, the reactions do not spark an immune system response, but nonetheless, may be detrimental. And again, avoidance is the only solution.

Food allergies
Many free-from foods exclude one or more of the eight most common food allergens.

The growing number of consumers following avoidance diets for health reasons, coupled with the desire for simple, natural, better-for-you foods, is driving the proliferation of free-from foods. Many such foods exclude one or more of the eight most common food allergens, as identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These are dairy, egg, fish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, shellfish and wheat, and are referred to as the “big 8” foods responsible for 90% of all allergic reactions to food in the United States.

In addition, some companies, such as Enjoy Life Foods, Chicago, a Mondelez International business unit, exclude three additional allergens recognized by the Canadian government. They are mustard, sesame and sulfites. By eliminating dairy, Enjoy Life Foods’ products are automatically lactose free, milk’s inherent sugar. The company also excludes the use of any gluten-containing ingredients.

Taking free-from one step further, all Enjoy Life Foods are free of any genetically modified ingredients, with packages featuring the Non-GMO Project verified certification logo. These many elimination efforts place Enjoy Life Foods at the top of the gluten-free/allergy-friendly food chain.

Gluten-free dominates

Of all free-from claims, gluten-free accounts for the majority. When producing gluten-free grain-based foods, which requires the elimination of wheat flour and other gluten-containing grain flours, often times dairy, egg or tree nuts — big 8 allergens — are introduced into the formula. This is because the elastic strands of gluten in baked foods capture and retain leavening gasses, providing structure to baked foods. That function is best mimicked by dairy or egg proteins. Ground forms of tree nuts, on the other hand, function as flour substitutes. Often times all three are required, sometimes with hydrocolloids.

Uid's gluten-free products
Of all free-from claims, gluten-free accounts for the majority.

Many gluten-free grain-based foods are anything but simple. That is because, for example, with traditional wheat bread, you only need a couple of ingredients. With gluten-free bread, there is no single gluten-free flour that is a direct substitution for wheat flour, so often formulators use twice as many ingredients, with a mix of different flours, proteins and starches, to get a similar texture and flavor.

Still, sales of gluten-free foods are booming. The market demonstrated an annual growth rate of 36% over the five-year period ended in 2015, when the market reached $1.6 billion, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. The market research firm forecasts the market will reach $2 billion in 2020.

Gluten-free foods are gaining popularity partly because manufacturers and marketers are aligning new product developments with other emerging trends in the food and beverage industry. The trends include clean labels, marketer transparency and the use of plant proteins and ancient grains.

“Much like veganism and flexitarianism or going low-carb or dairy-free, avoiding gluten has become a true lifestyle choice for many Americans,” said David Sprinkle, research director at Packaged Facts. “These consumers may not have a specific health-related motive necessitating the switch to gluten-free. Yet for gluten-free advocates there’s often a satisfaction from furthering one’s overall health and nutrition goals. Wellness, as they say, begins in the mind.”

Reading food labels
Eighty-four per cent of U.S. free-from consumers buy free-from foods because they are seeking more natural or less processed foods.

Health and wellness perception

It is not just consumers with food allergies or intolerances buying free-from foods. In general, foods bearing free-from claims are increasingly relevant to Americans, as they perceive the products as being closely tied to health.

Chicago-based Mintel showed that 84% of U.S. free-from consumers buy free-from foods because they are seeking more natural or less processed foods. Forty-three per cent of consumers agree that free-from foods are healthier than foods without a free-from claim, while another three in five believe the fewer ingredients a product has, the healthier it is (59%).

Another reason why consumers without allergies or intolerances buy free-from foods is convenience. Households with one member on an avoidance diet often means the whole household changes its ways to make mealtime easier.

When it comes to general health and wellness, there are a number of free-from claims being made in regards to artificial ingredients, namely colors, flavors and sweeteners, as well as preservatives and G.M.O.s.

Non-GMO Project verified label
The G.M.O.-free claim ranks among the top-four most important claims for many consumers.

Mintel data showed elevated interest in the G.M.O.-free claim, which ranks among the top-four most important claims for many consumers. It ranked more important than soy-free and nut/peanut-free foods.

“Fat-free may seem like a claim whose best days are behind it, but there is strong consumer interest in such free-from foods, no doubt owing to widespread concern about obesity in the U.S. and its related health consequences,” said Billy Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “Health issues appear to be top of mind among U.S. consumers when seeking products bearing a free-from claim, including those related to heart health and allergies.”

Overall, millennials (60%) and Generation X (55%) are more likely than baby boomers (46%) to agree that they worry about potentially harmful ingredients in the food they buy. Despite this, just 37% of consumers overall agree products with free-from claims are worth paying more for.

“Mintel research shows that Americans are interested in companies that look after the health of the consumer, as well as the environment,” Mr. Roberts said. “Overall, Mintel data indicates that consumers perceive foods with any free-from claim to be both healthier and less processed.”

The free-from trend in action

It is no wonder free-from foods dominated the 37th annual Natural Products Expo West held March 9-13 in Anaheim, Calif. The expo included more than 3,100 companies, with more than 500 first-time exhibitors, many making one or more free-from claims.

Taste of Freedom chocolate snacks
Carmit Candy Industries debuted a vegan line of milk chocolate snacks that are also formulated to be wheat-free and gluten-free.

One such first timer was Carmit Candy Industries, Tel Aviv, Israel. The exporter debuted a vegan line of milk chocolate snacks that are also formulated to be wheat-free and gluten-free. The confections come in white chocolate and standard light brown milk-style chocolate.

“Most vegan chocolate is dark chocolate, but Carmit’s chocolatiers have developed a ‘milk’ chocolate without dairy or milk,” said Adrian Sagman, vice-president of international sales and marketing.

Endangered Species Chocolate, Indianapolis, speaks to the health-of-the-planet attribute with its new chocolate snack line. It is Fairtrade International certified, Non-GMO Project verified, vegan (select products), gluten-free and helps fund various wildlife protection programs. The company donates 10% of net profits annually to partnering conservation organizations.

Simple Mills cookies, free-from
Simple Mills offers a line of grain-free, gluten-free cookies and crackers.

Simple Mills, Chicago, introduced a line of grain-free, gluten-free cookies and crackers. Simple Mills Crunchy Cookies have 25% to 40% less sugar than other cookie brands and contain coconut sugar, coconut oil and a flour blend of almonds, coconuts and tigernuts, which does make them nut-free. With 40 calories per cookie, flavors include chocolate chip, cinnamon, double chocolate and toasted pecan.

Simple Mills Sprouted Seed Crackers contain a blend of sunflower, flax and chia seeds that have been sprouted for better nutrient absorption. The items have 3 grams of protein per serving. Flavors include original, everything, jalapeño, and garlic and herb.

The new PowerBar Plant Protein bars from Post Holdings Inc., St. Louis, are free of gluten, as well as artificial flavors and sweeteners. They rely on nuts (almond, cashew or peanut) as their source of protein, with each bar containing 10 to 11 grams.

Lactose-free does not necessarily have to be dairy-free. Dairies are either adding lactase enzyme to formulations to breakdown the lactose for ease of digestion or using filtration to completely remove the lactose from the milk.

PowerBar plant protein bars, free-from
PowerBar Plant Protein bars are free of gluten, artificial flavors and sweeteners.

New Direction Foods, Long Beach, Calif., debuted Revele Whipped Gelato at Expo West. It is described as having one-third fewer calories, fat and sugar, as compared to industrial ice cream, and has 40% solids.

Revele is made with lactose-free milk and milk protein concentrate, and contains no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners.

San Diego-based Arctic Zero Fit Frozen Desserts is all about sweet treats that are low in calories and fat; free of lactose, gluten and G.M.O.s, as well as artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors. The dairy-based frozen desserts are made with whey proteins free from artificial growth hormones.

Dairy-free innovations were plentiful at Expo West. However, in some instances, to deliver on protein, nuts — another allergen — were often part of the formulation.

Eat Clean Organic meal in a bottle
TruVibe Organics introduced Eat Clean Organic Meal in a Bottle, featuring 15-plus grams of plant protein, essential fats and vegan probiotics.

TruVibe Organics L.L.C., Sparks, Nev., introduced Eat Clean Organic Meal in a Bottle. A single-serve 12-oz bottle contains 15-plus grams of plant protein, essential fats and vegan probiotics. Made with cold-pressed nuts, fruits and vegetables, the products tout their balanced macronutrient profile that mimic a healthful balanced meal.

Munk Pack, Greenwich, Conn., showcased its new line of dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free and soy-free cookies. Each cookie contains 18 grams of plant-based protein obtained from nuts, grains and brown rice protein.

Nestle USA, Solon, Ohio, entered the plant-based refrigerated creamer category with Natural Bliss non-dairy creamers. There are two based on almonds — caramel and vanilla — and also a Sweet Crème Coconut Milk variant.

With so many varied free-from claims, the market will continue to grow with innovations that appeal to broad consumer segments as well as very specific niche groups. As long as avoidance remains a priority, these products have an audience.